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Monday, 5 April 2010

THE RAWDON GOVERNMENT DEFAMATION TEST-CASE AS A MODEL SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) IN QUEBEC

Quebec Court of Appeal decision

On March 26, 2010, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned a broadly-worded blanket interlocutory injunction which had been issued against several internet bloggers who had been involved in posting comments on an internet forum, rawdon-qc.net. The interlocutory injunction, which had been issued on July 9, 2009 by Justice Danielle Richer of the Quebec Superior Court had sought to altogether prohibit the internet bloggers from somehow defaming the Government of Rawdon, its Mayor, or Director General in any way under threat of contempt of court proceedings.
This appeal drew the participation of Quebec newspapers, The Montreal Gazette and La Presse, as well as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as interveners

In quashing the interlocutory injunction issued by Justice Richer, the Quebec Court of Appeal noted that the rawdon-qc.net blog, which had been established in 2005, contained some 240 webpages of various comments and that, at most some 22 comments may have constituted commentary that may be highly objectionable and possibly defamatory, and that judge Richer had failed by attempting to somehow prohibit any and all defamation at large by the bloggers as against the municipal Government and its officials (which is tantamount to censorship).
The Quebec Court of Appeal declined to decide the issue of whether a municipal Government can sue in Quebec for alleged defamation (despite an absolute prohibition in other Canadian provinces), despite the insistence of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that the issue ought to be addressed pursuant to new anti-SLAPP legislation in Quebec and not left to fester until a trial date sometime in the future.

The future impact of the Rawdon test-case

On November 1, 2009, Quebec witnessed municipal elections across the province, and Rawdon witnessed a change in Government as well. The new political party had run, in part, on a platform which sought to shed light on the Rawdon Government-funded defamation case.
When the interlocutory injunction had been issued by Justice Danielle Richer in July 2009, the Mayor of Rawdon at the time, publicly stated in local media interviews that the case had cost Rawdon taxpayers $150,000, and she acknowledged a direct financial contribution of the Union des municipalités du Québec to this Rawdon test-case.

In March 2010, auditors appointed by the newly elected Government of the Municipality of Rawdon, revealed not only that the previous administration had run up legal bills of $ 541,675.25 (as of Dec. 31, 2009) but that legal work on the Rawdon test-case had begun long before the proceedings were filed ex parte and on an urgent basis in early February 2008 in Quebec Superior Court (District of Joliette) .
The legal bills of $ 541,675.25 (as of Dec. 31, 2009) are more than the entire amounts claimed by Rawdon and the ex-Mayor & ex- Director General in their lawsuits!

CAGE has since noted that following the initiation of the Rawdon test-case, another case was fashioned in the image of the Rawdon test-case model. In December 2008, a majority of the Municipal council of Beauceville authorized funding to sue a local media outlet for alleged defamation of the municipal Government and its Mayor; the text of the Beaceville Resolution actually states that it seeks to have the law firm that represented Rawdon in 705-17-002451-084 “do for Beaceville what they did for Rawdon. ”

The case funding was suspended by a subsequent vote of the Beauceville municipal council in early 2009, and the Government defamation action was later discontinued altogether.

There are over 1100 municipalities in the Province of Quebec. Allowing any one of them to sue for alleged defamation of the municipal Government with taxpayer dollars, would open the door wide open for oppression of political opponents in no uncertain terms. One need only be reminded of the infamous Padlock Law in Quebec, which was originally designed to address communist propaganda, but later became a powerful tool for the more generalized oppression of political opponents and minorities in Quebec.
The state of the law in Quebec is now such that any municipal councillors who could carry a majority vote to authorize municipal funding for eager and willing law firms to file lawsuits on their behalf, would be able to intimidate critics, or minorities, or threaten to exhaust them all financially by forcing them to defend against such lawsuits.

Rawdon is a town of a modest 10,000 residents: how could it run up legal bills in the amount of $541,675.25 (as of Dec. 31, 2009)? That is just over $54.00 for every man, woman and child living in Rawdon. The theory of a test-case is convincing, particularly so given an acknowledged financial contribution of the Union des municipalités du Québec .

Quebecers should pay close attention to this case, especially any citizens who post critical comments about municipal Governments on the internet.
If the Rawdon Government defamation case does not meet the definition of a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, what does? One would hope that Quebec courts would be able to see it the way the average citizen of Quebec sees it, and balance the playing field for persons having to defend this kind of lawsuit pursuant to the new anti-SLAPP legislation.

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