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SLAPP -- Take that! SLAPP -- Shut up! SLAPP -- Pay out!

No political Punch and Judy show worthy of its name -- certainly nothing that involves that skulking and drivelling institutional miscreant known as the Toronto Port Authority -- should proceed without a good Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation these days. Accordingly the TPA, ever the innovator in dirty politics, has now introduced this brazen U.S. tactic north of the border by launching a $6.8-million lawsuit against the civic gadflies who have dared to criticize its efforts to reindustrialize the Toronto waterfront.

Claiming that the group Community AIR and seven of its directors are "zealous and unbalanced" in their waterfront advocacy, the suit demands that each pay $500,000 in damages for defamation, $250,000 in aggravated damages and another $100,000 in punitive damages to the port authority, its president Lisa Raitt and two others.

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The lawsuit also demands an injunction preventing the volunteer activists from making any more allegedly defamatory statements about the federal agency -- a category of speech, according to the wide-open statement of claim the authority filed in court last week, that would seem to include every public statement any of the activists has ever made in this hotly contested, thoroughly aired, public debate.

After failing in its attempt to placate the federal authoritarians by retracting a few of the more fiery comments published on the Community AIR website -- nothing that hasn't been said at a dozen public meetings, or published in more carefully vetted form in this newspaper and others -- the activists are preparing to defend what could be an extremely expensive suit.

"We see this primarily as an effort to shut us up -- and that's not going to happen," said Brian Iler, a lawyer named as one of the defendants. "We will persist."

Writing to TPA lawyer Trisha Jackson of Torys LLP last month, Community AIR lawyer Louis Sokolov denounced the lawsuit as "a transparently tactical use of legal process aimed at chilling legitimate public discourse," adding that its timing, coincidental with a federal review of the authority's dubious activities, is "particularly suspect."

"If ever there were a time for the port authority to attempt to silence its critics," Mr. Sokolov wrote, "this would be it."

Undaunted, Ms. Jackson replied that the authority was determined to sue the group for its "unfounded and defamatory rhetoric" and "invective."

But it would be awfully difficult for any ordinary person to find $7-million in damages in the allegedly defamatory statements the lawsuit targeted. They are all contained in a Community AIR memo that sums up the issue with the predictable spin usually applied by port authority critics, presenting it in terms the entire city has heard again and again. Edited as Community AIR offered to do, it is positively anodyne.

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In other words, there is no question that this suit is nothing more than a hollow and cynical SLAPP, "in which a corporation or developer sues an organization in an attempt to scare it into dropping protests against a corporate initiative," according to one definition.

Many U.S. states have adopted anti-SLAPP measures that permit wide-ranging debate about issues of legitimate public concern and can be used to derail such suits before they get rolling. Two Ontario courts recently made baby steps in the same direction when they ruled that governments cannot sue for defamation -- potentially important precedents when a federal agency singles out its enemies for the same alleged wrongdoing. But nothing can stop it from using your money to try -- just as it uses your money to sue other governments, lobby shamelessly and issue soft-soap propaganda about its alleged good works.

If ever there was a time to support Community AIR, this would be it.

jbarber@globeandmail.com

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