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A Porter Airline plane lands at the Billy Bishop island airport.Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail

The union representing 22 airplane refuellers who work for a division of Porter Airlines Inc. is claiming the right to free speech in a $4-million libel suit concerning comments the union posted on Twitter.

The Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union argues that negative comments made about Porter's ability to function without the union workers at its Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport hub are the same kind heard in union meetings during a prolonged strike. In the age of Twitter, they find their way onto social media.

"Before Twitter and social media, these things would have been said in a union hall and on a leaflet," said COPE Ontario legal representative Glenn Wheeler. "The Charter of Rights provides for free expression, freedom of association. So we think we are in our constitutional rights to offer our version of the way we see things. That's fair comment."

Meanwhile, the Toronto Port Authority, which operates the downtown airport, has won a temporary court injunction restricting picketing, although both the port authority and the union claimed victory regarding the injunction.

It still allows demonstrations at a small park adjacent to the island airport's mainland entrance. It also allows up to three union members to hand out pamphlets at the ferry terminal that takes travellers the tiny distance over water to the airport on Toronto Islands.

Still, COPE accuses Porter of miring the labour dispute in legalities over Twitter comments and picketing rules, rather than trying to solve the dispute. The 22 workers have been on strike since Jan. 10, as COPE tries to draft a contract for the first time since the workers unionized in August last year.

"I would say that based on the number of lawyers from the other side that we have dealt with, they have spent several times more money on lawyers than it would cost to pay for the modest [hourly wage] increases requested by these 22 fuel handlers," Mr. Wheeler said.

Mediated talks had started again last week between the union and Porter, yet no further negotiations are currently scheduled.

Porter has called the series of Twitter tweets posted by the union from Jan. 17 to April 8 "malicious." "The defamatory statements have caused Porter to suffer significant and unjustifiable damages to its reputation and business, for which the defendants are liable," Porter says in the lawsuit.

Porter had asked the union to recant the statements before filing the suit. It also supported the port authorities efforts to restrict picketing.

"The port authority has been trying to introduce this since the beginning of the strike. And for whatever reason the union has resisted that, even with the assistance of the Toronto police to try to come up with something that was workable for everybody," said Porter spokesman Brad Cicero.

"So we really supported the port authority in their effort to get the injunction, and we're happy with the results. It does certainly give the union some ability to provide information to people, but without doing it in any type of threatening or intimidating manner."

The port authority, in particular, highlighted one incident where the ferry was prevented from operating properly for 90 minutes on March 10 by around 30 masked people disrupting service.

The union said none of its members were involved in that incident. "We were not aware of this before it took place. We were not notified. None of our members were there. We had nothing to do with it. We heard about it in the media like everyone else," Mr. Wheeler said.

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