An Ontario court has dismissed a defamation suit launched by a pair of politicians in the town of The Blue Mountains against the publisher of a local newsletter under the province’s anti-SLAPP law, which seeks to prevent public figures from using lawsuits to silence or intimidate critics.
Still, while celebrating victory this week, the lawyer for the publisher of the newsletter suggested the episode illustrates a need for basic training in the province’s evolving defamation laws for news outlets that are seeking to fill gaps left by the closing of large professional newsrooms.
“We’re happy with [the decision], of course," said Mark Bourrie, an Ottawa-based lawyer for Linda Wykes, a printing shop owner in the village of Clarksburg, about 20 kilometres northwest of the ski town of Collingwood. "I think the judge worked really hard to untangle a small-town issue.”
After several local papers closed about five years ago, Ms. Wykes began publishing The Blue Mountains Review, a monthly newsletter with a circulation of about 4,000, to help keep members of the community up to date.
Last August, the Review published an op-ed in which former councillor Michael Seguin sharply criticized the then-mayor and deputy mayor of the Town of The Blue Mountains, John McKean and Gail Ardiel, over their handling of an investigation into allegations of workplace harassment against him.
Mr. McKean and Ms. Ardiel filed a statement of claim in December against Ms. Wykes, seeking $250,000 in general damages and $200,000 for aggravated, exemplary and/or punitive damages. The statement said Mr. Seguin’s op-ed caused them “reputational harm,” and that it had “maliciously prejudice[d]” the campaign for mayor, which Ms. Ardiel lost in October. (Mr. McKean had not sought re-election.)
In March, Ms. Wykes told The Globe and Mail she expected to lose her printing business, Riverside Graphics, if the defamation case went against her.
Mr. Seguin was named a co-defendant, along with his wife, Catherine Sholtz, for comments he had made about the two politicians on his Facebook page and in an e-mail supporting a candidate who triumphed against Ms. Ardiel in the mayoral election.
In March, lawyers for Ms. Wykes, Mr. Seguin and Ms. Sholtz argued in an Owen Sound courthouse that the action should be dismissed under a 2015 law designed to curb what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP): defamation suits used to shut down criticism.
In passing the law, the Ontario government noted that defamation actions are often withdrawn before trial, but could still silence defendants, typically for years, as they crawled through the court system.
The aim of the new law, according to a previous case heard in the Ontario Court of Appeal, is to act as a sort of “triage device designed to eliminate certain claims at an early stage of the litigation process.” Mr. Bourrie noted that the speed of the process – a little more than six months from the statement of claim to dismissal – was beneficial for all involved.
In the judgment released on July 8, Justice Judy Fowler Byrne of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed the defamation action from Mr. McKean and Ms. Ardiel, noting that Mr. Seguin’s statements had related to a matter of public interest, especially given that they occurred in the run-up to the election. She noted that the Blue Mountains Review had regularly covered developments in the Seguin workplace saga, and so his op-ed was a legitimate part of the story.
She also added that Mr. McKean and Ms. Ardiel had failed to demonstrate that the publication of the allegedly defamatory material was the cause of any specific damage they said they had incurred.
The two plaintiffs must pay the full court costs, which likely amount to tens of thousands of dollars, and damages of $10,000 to Ms. Sholtz for involving her in the action as a way to “punish and intimidate [Mr. Seguin, her husband] on a more personal level,” according to the judgment.
Attempts to reach the plaintiffs and their lawyer were unsuccessful.
Mr. Bourrie suggested the episode demonstrated the necessity of basic legal training for people who aspire to operate newsrooms to ensure they are aware of their responsibilities and possible defences against lawsuits.
“There needs to be some outreach from law schools or journalism schools,” he said. “I really think there needs to be that kind of education for people who are doing these startups, who want to do journalism in these communities, who see the need, who maybe see the market – for whatever reason they want to do it – so they know how to protect themselves,” he said.
“Just to get it into people’s heads that we have really good defences now, and to teach them how to be able to use them.”
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