Anti-SLAPP motion protects TCDSB trustees from defamation claim

29 septembre 2022 | Kayla Cockburn, Nadya Tymochenko

( Disponible en anglais seulement )

In Volpe v. Wong-Tam 2022 ONSC 3106, the Ontario Superior Court granted an anti-SLAPP motion and dismissed a defamation suit against City of Toronto councillors and Toronto Catholic District School Board (“TCDSB”) school trustees.

The plaintiffs, M.T.E.C. Consultants Ltd., which operates as Corriere Canadese, an Italian language newspaper, and Joseph Volpe, the publisher of Corriere Canadese, published a series of articles attacking the TCDSB’s efforts at LGBTQ2S+ inclusion. The plaintiff also specifically attacked the Board’s promotion of Youthline, a mental health support resource for LGBTQ2S+ youth.

In response to the articles, some of Toronto’s city counsellors, including Councillor Wong-Tam proposed a motion seeking to have the City halt all publications in the plaintiff’s newspaper unless it complied with the City of Toronto’s Human Rights and Anti-Harassment/Discrimination Policy. Some TCDSB trustees issued statements in a joint letter with the city Councillors proposing the motion and participated in a joint press conference condemning the articles in the newspaper.

The plaintiffs sued the city councillors and school trustees for defamation over their statements made in support of the motion. The defendant councillors and trustees responded by bringing an anti-SLAPP motion.

SLAPP refers to a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. These lawsuits are often defamation claims by wealthy plaintiffs who are aiming to silence public criticism. SLAPPs are employed as a weapon to extinguish public debate and criticism through threatening legal action. In response to this phenomenon, the Ontario legislature enacted special provisions in the Courts of Justice Act, allowing defendants to end SLAPPs by bringing a motion for an order to dismiss. The purpose of the anti-SLAPP provisions are the following:

  1. to encourage individuals to express themselves on matters of public interest;
  2. to promote broad participation in debates on matters of public interest;
  3. to discourage the use of litigation as a means of unduly limiting expression on matters of public interest; and
  4. to reduce the risk that participation by the public in debates on matters of public interest will be hampered by fear of legal action.[1]

The Court granted the defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion, finding that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the harm from the impugned comments was serious enough that the public interest in allowing the proceeding to continue outweighs the public interest in protecting the defendants’ expression. There was little to no evidence of any harm deriving from the defendants’ expression related to supporting the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ2S+ community in the TCDSB, and restricting the use of public taxpayer funds for City advertising.

The Court noted that trustees act as education advocates, and as such, must focus on students’ well-being and equity. According to the Court, allowing the plaintiffs’ claim could have a chilling effect on public debate, which anti-SLAPP legislation was created to prevent.

The action for defamation was dismissed.

[1] Courts of Justice Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.43, s. 137.1

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