By Rignam Wangkhang
Thanks in part to lobbying from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), Environmental Defence and Greenpeace, the Protection of Public Participation Act, 2015, Ontario’s anti-SLAPP legislation, passed its third reading on Wednesday, October 28. It will now become law in Ontario, enabling citizens to take part in public debates and actions without fear of facing a frivolous and costly defamation or libel lawsuit.
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are a specific type of lawsuit used by an individual or organization to muzzle groups which are speaking out against their activities in an issue of public interest. These lawsuits burden defendants—often public interest advocacy groups—with massive legal fees, draining their resources and distracting them from their core work. Ultimately, the plaintiff abuses the justice system in order to curtail public engagement, placing a chill on free expression and our democratic process by making individuals and groups unwilling to speak out against more powerful individuals and groups.
The new law aims to lower the number of frivolous lawsuits without preventing legitimate legal action by those who are slandered or libelled. The Act will allow courts to utilize a fast-track written process to identify and dismiss strategic lawsuits swiftly, instead of having to deliberate in person.
Advocacy groups are not the only ones threatened by SLAPP suits. They are also a significant threat to journalists, who may be dissuaded from pursuing stories of high public importance due to the threat of a frivolous lawsuit. Independent and freelance journalists are most vulnerable to SLAPPs, as they do not have the protection of a large media organization with funds for legal defense.
CJFE, CCLA, Greenpeace, the Ontario Bar Association, PEN Canada, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and over 150 environmental organizations came together in September 2013 to support the implementation of anti-SLAPP legislation. The Ontario government has since heard our voice and taken action.
In CJFE’s 2014 Report Card, which annually assigns grades to various institutions based on their performance upholding free expression across Canada, anti-SLAPP legislation in Ontario received a cautious B grade in anticipation of the passing of new legislation. Anti-SLAPP laws have already been adopted in Quebec, a majority of U.S. states and several other countries.
The Protection of Public Participation Act is important for Ontarians and important for democracy. We commend the Ontario government for taking concrete action to end SLAPP suits and defend free speech in the province.
For more information on CJFE’s anti-SLAPP work, click here.
Rignam Wangkhang is CJFE’s Campaigns and Advocacy Officer.