Once upon a time, Sooke PocketNews questioned one District of Sooke Committee’s decision. Due to a now-filled binder of verifiable, cross-referenced, and multiple-sourced facts, we felt that the Committee’s decision merited questioning.
After several unsuccessful attempts to meet with someone at the District, I aka Sooke PocketNews, put my cards on the table. I emailed the acting mayor and two Councillors (to ensure accountability and a response); I detailed some of my findings, presented possible perceptions, and asked questions.
That email resulted in a legal letter from one staffer, issued to me on March 30. This letter accused me of defaming said staff. It demanded that I stop asking questions, which caused “undue embarrassment.”
I sought legal advice. As both a tax-paying community member and a member of the press, I have the right to question Council decisions when public money is being spent.
In early June, I received a second legal letter, this time accusing me of defaming a Councillor. The letter (same legal firm) demanded the removal of an SPN article published in January. The letter stated the article was critical of said Councillor.
Again, I sought legal advice. Twice. If any article was grounded in fact, “Truth” is one legitimate defense against defamation. I combed over every line in that article, and all statements in reference to said Councillor in that article were, and still are, True.
Democracy and freedom of the press are deeply intertwined. It’s both, or it’s none. In countries where there is no freedom of the press, countries like North Korea, Burma, Libya and Syria, democracy does not exist.
In Canada, laws protecting freedom of the press lag behind other democratic countries. In defamation suits, the accused has a “reverse onus,” and is assumed guilty until proven innocent in court. Reverse onus paves the way for strategic lawsuits against public participation, aka the SLAPP suit.
According to this Wikipedia article, “A … (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” SLAPP suits “load defendants with costs of responding.”
This checklist topically advises politicians on libel. Libel is when a false statement is published, damaging a person’s reputation. One danger of filing a libel suit is that a politician might be perceived as resorting to bullying; or, being perceived as having a thin skin when it comes to legitimate criticism. It adds that politicians considering libel best not have any skeletons in their closets: Dirty laundry (Truth) tends to be aired during libel legal proceedings.
On June 27 Sooke’s mayor stated that they will protect staff and council from harassment and bullying. Mayor Tait closed, stating “any offending member of the public will be dealt with further to the policy and applicable laws.”
On June 30, Sooke resident Gail Hall received a letter from the District (below). This letter holds the public to an in-house anti-harassment policy (“Where there is a conflict between the Collective Agreement and a District Policy the Collective Agreement shall apply“).** It further asserts that the “freedom of expression is subject to the statements being true and constructive” (emphasis added). The Sooke version differs dramatically from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2, where Canadians “are guaranteed freedom of thought, belief and expression. Since the media are an important means for communicating thoughts and ideas, the Charter also protects the right of the press and other media to speak out.”
No fairy-tale ending. I have a binder filled with Truth. But, given the two legal letters already received and the District’s statement to deal with the offending public, Sooke PocketNews will cease to question, for now.
Here’s why: Should a SLAPP suit be initiated against SPN, the cost of a reverse-onus defense can be creatively funded; however, the loss of time available to spend on the business due to legal proceedings may cause significant damage to this fledgling company. Since District politics consumes only an estimated 5% of space on SPN, this is not a risk I am willing to take.
As a result, while Sooke PocketNews will continue to report on Council meetings, we will (for now) no longer question Council decisions.
–Britt Santowski, Publisher and owner, Sooke PocketNews
**While the above letter references the policy, it does not bind residents to it. We are sorry for this error. Read our full retraction and apology here. July 6, 2016.