The Government of Ontario is to be commended for moving ahead with legislation designed to stop abusive lawsuits aimed at public interest activists and free speech.

In 2010, an expert advisory panel appointed by the Attorney-General of Ontario looked into the issue of SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). In a SLAPP suit the scenario usually looks something like this: An individual or organization speaks out about a project they reasonably believe has had, or is likely to have, harmful consequences. A corporation with a stake in that project files a meritless lawsuit. Faced with the cost and time of fighting the lawsuit, the individual or organization shuts up and promises to say nothing more.

In its report, the Advisory Panel strongly recommended that Ontario “enact legislation against the use of legal processes that affect people’s ability or willingness to express views or take actions on matters of public interest.”

Why? Because SLAPPs are more common in Ontario than most people think.

We don’t hear about SLAPPs very often, but that’s not because they are not an issue. Most SLAPPs `settle’ or are withdrawn. That is the essence of a successful SLAPP – contentious debates are taken out of the public arena. Uncomfortable questions gets swept under the mat, and so does the evidence for why anti-SLAPP laws are needed.

These suits have pernicious effect on free speech in Ontario. The public’s right to speak out and participate in decision-making over matters of public interest is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Efforts aimed at suppressing this right must be discouraged by government and the judiciary.

We go to the polls every four years, but democracy is also about participating in the important decisions that affect our community, our province, our country in the period between elections. Activities that attract SLAPPs often lie at the very heart of living in a democracy:

  • speaking at public meetings
  • contacting the media
  • participating at hearings before administrative tribunals or engaging in public campaigns, and
  • filing complaints with government agencies

It is not the strength of the case, but the threat of onerous and expensive legal proceedings which makes SLAPPs so effective. They typically require enormous financial resources to defend against, well beyond the means of average citizens like you and me. If these important activities can attract meritless lawsuits by deep-pocketed individuals aimed at citizens who – due to the stress and cost of defending themselves – are coerced into halting their engagement in public advocacy, democracy is not served.

The good news is that people are breaking the silence. Many have spoken out against SLAPPs and in favour of legislation:

  • 65 Ontario municipalities have enacted anti-SLAPP resolutions
  • 70 public interest organizations and 250 university professors across Canada have signed an anti-SLAPP petition
  • The former Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, has come out in favour of anti-SLAPP legislation, as have former Supreme Court of Canada Justices Frank Iacobucci and Ian Binnie

In December of last year, the provincial government introduced Bill 52, the Protection of Public Participation Act. It had the support of all parties and will be voted in the legislature before the end of the year.

Let your Ontario MPP know that you want to see an end to SLAPPs!

Photo by Micha via Shutterstock

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