When the local paper in the town of The Blue Mountains, Ont., shut down five years ago, Linda Wykes decided to step in and fill the void.
After all, as the owner of Riverside Press, Ms. Wykes had spent decades promoting local events through calendars, flyers and other ephemera from her printing shop, on the quiet main street of the village of Clarksburg. Starting up the Blue Mountains Review, a monthly newsletter mailed to 4,000 homes, seemed important.
“Somebody commented about the fact that a lot of our history would be lost because nobody’s recording it any more,” she explained over the phone this week.
But now, Ms. Wykes has become part of a big story herself. The town’s former mayor and deputy mayor named the Blue Mountains Review in a defamation suit over an op-ed written by a controversial former councillor that Ms. Wykes published last summer. The case is set to be heard in an Owen Sound courtroom on Thursday morning.
Ms. Wykes’s troubles illustrate the potential pitfalls as local newspapers close down and inexperienced citizens try to fill the gaps. In Ms. Wykes’s community alone, the Blue Mountain Courier Herald and the Meaford Express closed within the past five years. Further east, Metroland Media shuttered the Barrie Examiner and the Orillia Packet & Times after acquiring them in a swap with Postmedia in November, 2017.
The news business is in Ms. Wykes’s blood. In high school, she helped her father put out the Valley Courier, a weekly that had about 600 subscribers. He started the Courier in his printing shop in the early 1970s after the local paper had been bought by an out-of-town corporation. “People said, Oh my goodness, there’s no local news. Print us the local news,” Ms. Wykes said.
The Blue Mountains Review is filled with “local information, things that are going on. People who died,” Ms. Wykes said with a morbid laugh. She publishes only information received from official media releases, government reports and articles submitted by local residents.
She considers herself a publisher but not a journalist and has never had any article reviewed by a lawyer. She presumed any potential liability resided with the authors of the bylined articles or the official sources of the information.
In late 2016, Ms. Wykes also began including a four-page supplement in the Review, titled the Citizens’ Pages, produced by an outside group, which covered some of the more contentious local issues.
One such long-running story concerned an investigation into allegations of workplace harassment against local councillor Michael Seguin. Last August, the Review published a blistering first-person cri de coeur written by Mr. Seguin – which was labelled as a media release – criticizing the town’s then-mayor and deputy mayor, John McKean and Gail Ardiel, for their handling of the investigation.
Mr. McKean and Ms. Ardiel retained a Toronto lawyer, who sent Ms. Wykes a cease and desist, and notice of libel charging that his clients had suffered “reputational harm … as a result of the defamatory and libelous statements” published in the Review. It demanded Ms. Wykes publish an apology and retraction in the next issue of the Review.
The letter added that the statements “maliciously prejudice Ms. Ardiel’s campaign for Mayor of the Town of Blue Mountains.” Later that fall, Ms. Ardiel failed in her bid to be elected mayor (Mr. McKean did not seek re-election).
After consulting with local lawyers, Ms. Wykes chose to ignore the letter, as well as a follow-up she was sent in October. She was served with a statement of claim in December seeking $250,000 in general damages and an additional $200,000 for aggravated, exemplary and/or punitive damages. Mr. Seguin and his wife, Catherine Sholtz, were named as co-defendants in the suit, for allegedly libellous statements the two had made on social media and in other forums. None of the allegations has been proved in court.
Ms. Wykes said she had published Mr. Seguin’s op-ed because the Review had already spent two years covering the story in the Citizens’ Pages.
“His name was on it, he owned it, so I thought, ‘Well, I guess if he really, really wants to tell people where things are now, I guess he can,’ ” she explained.
In their statement of claim, the complainants note the defendants “have failed and/or refused to remove the defamatory statements from the internet, and failed and/or refused to provide an apology.”
Ms. Wykes said she considered retracting the article after she received the lawyer’s letter in August, but didn’t like feeling pushed around.
“They said, ‘We demand you print a retraction. We demand!’" she said. “They could have sent a nicer letter.” She added the lawyer’s letter had been submitted “with prejudice – I had to Google that.” Under those conditions, she said, even if she had issued a retraction and apology, she might still have been sued.
On Thursday morning before Justice Judy Fowler Byrne, Ms. Wykes’s lawyer and the lawyer for Mr. Seguin and Ms. Sholtz will argue in a pretrial motion that the case falls under Ontario’s anti-SLAPP legislation, which seeks to limit the ability of people or corporations to suppress the speech of critics through what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Ms. Wykes estimates she has already spent $10,000 on legal bills, a significant hit for her two-person printing operation. The newsletter wasn’t incorporated as a separate business; if the judgment goes against her, she believes she could lose the whole company.