Earlier in March, 45 leading organizations and public interest advocates from a broad range of sectors published an open letter welcoming the BC Attorney General’s commitment to enact legislation to protect British Columbians from strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits. A SLAPP suit refers to a lawsuit filed against individuals or organizations participating in public debate as a means of silencing them.
“We support the Attorney General’s commitment to bringing in anti-SLAPP legislation for BC,” said Meghan McDermott, Staff Counsel at the BC Civil Liberties Association. “Strong protections for free speech and public participation are an essential part of our democracy, and British Columbians have been paying the price for government inaction in the face of SLAPP suits for far too long.”
A diverse range of experts agree that British Columbians need legal protection from abusive SLAPP suits. Today’s open letter echoes another recent call for BC anti-SLAPP legislation from a group of judicial luminaries, including former NDP premier and attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh, former Liberal attorney general Wally Oppal and former Supreme Court justices Frank Iacobucci and Ian Binnie. This initial letter from high-profile judges and legal experts prompted Attorney General David Eby to reiterate commitments to enact such legislation in BC.
“I want to thank the Attorney General for supporting anti-SLAPP legislation to protect our rights as Canadians,” said Alan Dutton, member of Burnaby Pipeline Watch. “I was sued for $5.6 million by a transnational corporation based on a statement I made to a local newspaper and for a Facebook page that carried information about protests on Burnaby Mountain. We urgently need anti-SLAPP legislation to defend freedom of expression and the right of ordinary folks to dissent.”
SLAPP suits may take many different forms – such as defamation, nuisance, trespass, or other torts – but they are generally understood to be a tactic used by powerful actors to silence and intimidate their critics. Without anti-SLAPP legislation, people and organizations who speak out about public issues or exercise their right to public participation risk facing costly lawsuits.
“Will I get sued if I speak up? No one should be afraid to voice their opinions on matters of public interest,” said author and artist Franke James. “But the reality is, there’s a chill in the air. Financially-powerful organizations are using litigation to bully people into silence. Personally, I have been threatened with lawsuits, and even though they never got to court I incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs to defend my right to speak up on issues related to health care and human rights for people with disabilities. Effective anti-SLAPP legislation in BC will help deter SLAPP suits and strengthen public debate in our province.”
Many jurisdictions already have legislation to protect public participation and free speech, from Australia to the United States. In Canada, both Quebec and Ontario have adopted anti-SLAPP legislation, making British Columbia the most populous province without these protections.
“SLAPP suits hurt all of us,” said Erica Stahl, Staff Lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law Association. “The diversity of the signatories to this open letter demonstrates that. We are very pleased that the government is committed to protecting British Columbians from these abusive lawsuits, and we look forward to working with the government to develop anti-SLAPP legislation that works for BC’s unique context.”
SPN has received an updated statement from the Ministry of the Attorney General:
“British Columbians should have the right to participate freely in public discourse without fear. We will take the steps necessary through legislation to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression against lawsuits that have the effect of limiting or preventing expression on matters of public interest. We look forward to sharing more information on this as it becomes available. We are planning on introducing SLAPP legislation in the near future.”