In what might be called a “victory for free speech” and public interest, an Ontario court dismissed the two cases of defamation launched by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and a marketing firm against Ed Smith on November 23rd.
Many of you may not know of Mr. Smith, but he is a local citizen concerned with governance and transparency issues at the NPCA. After exhaustive research he wrote a report entitled “A Call for Accountability at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.”
Mr. Smith in producing the report was exercising his constitutionally protected right to expression and opinion under Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Needless to say the NPCA and those mentioned in the report were not very enthusiastic about the allegations Mr. Smith brought forth in his report and filed defamation suits against him.
In court, Mr. Smith’s defence partly relied upon recent Ontario legislation, The Protection of Public Participation Act which seeks to protect “expression on matters of public interest”. The legislation strengthens the protections of individuals against SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) that are filed not with the purpose to win, but to censor or intimidate individuals by burdening them with the possibility of a long and costly lawsuit.
Justice Ramsay’s decision has some interesting and thought-provoking points:
On the NPCA:
“This and other things I read about in the materials suggest to me a body that has had trouble finding its way … While the Authority is accountable to other bodies for some its decisions, it has little accountability for its own administration. That makes public participation and comment all the more important.”
And quoting a 2006 defamation case on the nature of free speech:
“In a free and democratic system, every citizen must be guaranteed the right to freedom of expression about issues relating to government as an absolute privilege, without threat of a civil action for defamation being initiated against them by that government. It is the very essence of a democracy to engage many voices in the process, not just those who are positive and supportive.”
Truly a landmark case in the average citizen’s right to question local governance decision-making.
You can read more on the decision at the following links:
Justice Ramsay’s decision is attached below: