Ontario defends freedom of expression, passes anti-SLAPP legislation
“Protecting citizens’ rights to voice their concerns is good for Ontario and for democracy.”
Ontarians will now be able to exercise their right to freely speak out on public issues without the fear of strategic lawsuits often used by deep-pocketed businesses to silence public debate.
The Ontario government has passed Bill 52, the Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015, a law aimed at countering the growing phenomenon of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
SLAPPs are often used by corporations and developers against residents and community groups willing to oppose proposed projects in their communities.
The Ontario Bar Association, one of the 150+ organizations that supported the call for anti-SLAPP legislation, has characterized SLAPP lawsuits as “litigation that is brought for the sole purpose of stifling public debate.”
“With this new law, corporations with deep pockets will no longer be able to intimidate citizens and silence public debate,” said Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence, in a statement. “Ontario residents will now be able to voice their concerns when industrial projects are proposed for their communities.”
The Ontario government explains: ”
Plaintiffs (the parties starting the lawsuit) use these lawsuits against weaker opponents in the hope that they will exhaust their finances and energy in defending themselves. As a result, other critics may refrain from speaking out for fear of the same retribution. Most strategic lawsuits are filed in court as claims of defamation (libel or slander), and are often dropped before proceeding to trial.
Back 2012, the Canadian Environmental Law Association reported “a continually increasing number of SLAPP suits” in Ontario.
“The mere threat of being sued is generally sufficient to intimidate and silence those who are being targeted. Due to the fear of being SLAPPed, others are also likely to be deterred from participating on the same or other issues of public interest, resulting in a chilling effect,” the organization said then.
In short, SLAPPs put a chill on free speech. Since their power come “not from the strength of the filer’s legal position, but through the strategic use of the legal arena to intimidate citizen groups and exhaust their limited resources,” SLAPPs are an unbearable abuse of the legal process.
The anti-SLAPP legislation is the culmination of a process that started as far back as 2009. In his 2008/2009 Annual Report, Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario recommended the adoption of protections against SLAPP lawsuits. Miller wrote: “The public’s right to participate in decision-making over matters of public interest is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Efforts aimed at suppressing this right should be discouraged by the Ontario Legislature and other public agencies. The ECO sees a need for provincial legislation that would put both sides of development disputes on equal footing. Such legislation could serve to halt SLAPP suits in their tracks.”
The Anti-SLAPP Advisory Panel, chaired by Mayo Moran of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law made its recommendation, stating that anti-SLAPP legislation “expand the democratic benefits of broad participation in public affairs” while reducing the “risk that such participation will be unduly hampered by fear of legal action.”
The Protection of Public Participation Act will restore Ontarians’ freedom of expression by allowing “the courts to use a fast-track process to identify and dismiss strategic lawsuits quickly.” The law won’t restrict legitimate lawsuits against slander and libel.
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