The publisher of Blue Mountain Review magazine, a small-town publication published an op-ed that led to a lawsuit and eventually a judgment in anti-SLAPP law. A former city councilor wrote the article to criticize the then-mayor and his deputy over their handling of an investigation into workplace harassment allegation against him. The magazine and the publisher, who failed to heed a demand for retraction and apology, faced a lawsuit seeking $250,000 in general damages and an additional $200,000 in punitive damages.
Before a judgment issued over an anti-SLAPP motion filed by her lawyer, Linda Wykes, the publisher, had spent $10,000 on legal bills, a significant hit for her two-person printing operation. She could have lost the whole company, had a judgment been issued against her.
SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation was abusive litigation that tries to bully critics into silence. SLAPP suits are not filed to claim a victory but to make a legal threat. With a deep-pocket, plaintiffs intend to put financial and mental stress on targeted entities that acted as civil society watchdogs.
The expensive legal proceedings have made the SLAPP suits very useful, and the tactic to intimidate are commonly used and became a standard weapon over the past. Most SLAPP lawsuits are settled or withdrawn before trial but could take contentious debates out of public arena and silence defendants for years as they crawled through the court system.
The intimidation lawsuit frequently targets media organizations that play a watchdog role in a democratic society. Over the past, Chinese News has received repeated lawsuit threats over articles that shined a light in the community dark corners. The legal actions ranged from libel notices to cease and desist letters to a statement of claims, seeking damages ranging from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.
In 2017, multimillionaire developer Pan Miaofei in B.C. sued Vancouver blogger Gao Bin Chen for his online publication alleging Pan of tax evasion and other issues. The judge rejected Pan's suggestion of damages between $360,000 and $450,000 but awarded him of $1. The court had found little proof that the postings had hurt Pan's reputation as a community leader. Pan is appealing the decision in BC Supreme Court.
Independent media is a cornerstone of Western democracy. However, SLAPP lawsuits have damaging effects on free speech. To discourage the efforts aiming at suppressing this right, legal activists broke the silence and demanded a change. Ontario legislature in 2015 pasted anti-SLAPP legislation that allowed defendants to have the SLAPP suit dismissed in a more desirable matter, avoiding expensive legal costs.
In two recent rulings, the Ontario Court of Appeal has suggested that plaintiffs in libel actions over online comments should present evidence of actual harm at an early stage. Otherwise, a proceeding may not be permitted to proceed to trial.
A judgment by Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed the lawsuit against Blue Mountain Review on July 8. The court believed that the former councillor’s statement had related to a matter of public interest and that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate claimed damages caused by the publication. The court ordered the two plaintiffs pay the full court costs, which likely amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
The judgment is a victory of anti-SLAPP law and a strong defense for public interest journalism.
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