Former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong defamed a freelance journalist when he accused her of shoddy reporting and alleged she had a vendetta against him, and the smears have greatly harmed her career, the woman's lawyer said on the first day of a high-profile civil trial.
Laura Robinson's defamation case against Mr. Furlong began Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.
Ms. Robinson wrote an article for the weekly newspaper Georgia Straight in September, 2012, in which eight former students of Mr. Furlong's alleged he physically abused them. The allegations stemmed from Mr. Furlong's time as a physical-education instructor at Immaculata Roman Catholic Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., in 1969-70.
Mr. Furlong held a news conference the day the story was published, denying the allegations and lashing out at Ms. Robinson, whom he accused of showing a lack of due diligence in her reporting. Ms. Robinson, who filed her lawsuit in January, 2014, says Mr. Furlong has since continued to defame her.
Bryan Baynham, Ms. Robinson's lawyer, told the court during his opening statement that Mr. Furlong attempted to discredit Ms. Robinson because she "reported on aspects of his past that he did his best to keep hidden."
"The bottom line, this is a journalist doing her job," the lawyer said. "A free and democratic society is at risk if journalists cannot ask the tough questions without having to endure all-out public attacks."
The allegations in the case have not been proven.
Mr. Baynham said Mr. Furlong, at his initial news conference, went so far as to imply Ms. Robinson had attempted to extort money from him. Mr. Baynham said Mr. Furlong's comments have taken a significant toll on Ms. Robinson. He said she spent more than $150,000 to defend herself against a lawsuit launched by Mr. Furlong, an action he later dropped.
Mr. Baynham said Ms. Robinson has also had trouble finding media outlets who will now publish her work.
John Hunter, Mr. Furlong's lawyer, outside court said his client is "entitled to respond to attacks made on him."
"It's qualified privilege and he's entitled to do that, and that's what he did and that's the main defence," Mr. Hunter said. "I don't know how there could be very much doubt he was attacked, but whether the response to attack defence will be accepted will be up to the judge."
Mr. Hunter cautioned against reaching any conclusions before all the evidence is heard.
He said Mr. Furlong will testify at some point. The case is expected to run for two weeks. Ms. Robinson is to begin her testimony Tuesday.
The first person to testify was John Miller, the former chair of Ryerson University's School of Journalism school and a professor emeritus. Prof. Miller testified as an expert on professional standards of investigative journalists. He said journalists do have standards they follow when it comes to matters such as verification and fairness.
After Ms. Robinson's story was published, three people filed lawsuits against Mr. Furlong alleging he sexually abused them when they were students. One of the lawsuits was abandoned, while the other two were dismissed. Ms. Robinson's story did not mention sexual abuse.
Mr. Furlong filed lawsuits against the Georgia Straight and Ms. Robinson, but ultimately abandoned both. He dropped his lawsuit against the newspaper in October, 2013, when he said the RCMP had cleared him, though the RCMP at the time said their file remained open.
The RCMP's investigations into the claims of physical and sexual abuse later concluded without charges.
Mr. Furlong announced he would drop his lawsuit against Ms. Robinson in March of this year, after the third sexual assault case closed. He said the end of the sexual abuse suits proved his innocence and there was no need to continue his case against Ms. Robinson.
Mr. Baynham told the court that by dropping the suit against his client, Mr. Furlong conceded the story she wrote was true. He said Mr. Furlong chose to try the case in the court of public opinion, launching a media blitz instead of furthering the legal proceedings he had launched.