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DEFAMATION - Fair comment - Matters of public interest

Wednesday, January 03, 2018 @ 8:39 AM  

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Motion by the defendant, Maynard, to dismiss the plaintiffs’ defamation action pursuant to s. 137.1 of the Courts of Justice Act (Act). The plaintiffs, the Mayor and a Councillor of the Town of Mississippi Mills, claimed that the defendant defamed them in seven Facebook posts. The posts included statements that they discriminated against children with disabilities because parks would not be fully accessible to them, that the Mayor had “no morals or empathy” and that there was a “shocking level of corruption and law breaking” by him, Councillors and senior municipal staff.

HELD: Motion allowed. The defendant met the public interest test. The statements were about acts or omissions by the plaintiffs in the discharge of their public duties. Accordingly, the onus shifted to the plaintiffs to prove that they met the requirements of s. 137.1(4) of the Act: the proceeding had substantial merit; there was no valid defence; and the harm likely to be or that had been suffered by the plaintiffs as a result of the defendant's expression was sufficiently serious that the public interest in permitting the proceeding to continue outweighed the public interest in protecting that expression. The plaintiffs showed that the proceeding had substantial merit, based on the posts that alleged that they acted in a discriminatory manner, were corrupt and engaged in law-breaking. The plaintiffs did not show that the defence of fair comment was not available with respect to the alleged discrimination. The defendant was referring to their alleged contravention of regulatory legislation that was open to different interpretations of what it required. The plaintiffs showed that that the statements about “no morals or empathy” and a “shocking level of corruption and law breaking” were not protected by the defence of fair comment or responsible communication. The defendant did not adduce sufficient evidence to support an honest opinion of that level of malfeasance. However, the public interest in protecting the defendant’s expression surpassed the harm that could be caused by those statements. It was important that people be free to express their disagreement with the acts or omissions of municipal politicians without fear of being sued. The decisions of municipal politicians often had a direct and immediate impact on the quality of life in the community. People would be reluctant to express their opposition if they knew that their use of social media could result in a lawsuit by a public official unhappy with the criticism, with all the attendant stress and financial burden such litigation entailed.

McLaughlin v. Maynard, [2017] O.J. No. 5880, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, P. Hurley J., November 15, 2017. Digest No. TLD-January12018005