FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Toronto – June 5, 2013 – PEN Canada welcomes the Attorney General of Ontario’s pledge to move forward with legislation that will protect comment in matters of public interest by discouraging frivolous and vexatious lawsuits. This was recommended in October 2010 by the province’s Advisory Panel on Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Philip Slayton, chair of PEN Canada’s National Affairs Committee, said, “It is time to stop lawsuits that have no intrinsic merit and are intended only to stifle free expression.”
The panel recommended that anti-SLAPP legislation in Ontario should cover a wide range of public participation activities, including disputes brought before the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), and that it should provide credible disincentives for frivolous and vexatious lawsuits as well as an expeditious review process to facilitate the early dismissal of claims that are clearly intended to stifle public debate and to silence or intimidate critics.
The panel proposed that once a court determined that the subject of a lawsuit involved “a communication on a matter of public interest” the plaintiff should then have to establish both the “substantial merit” of the claim and show “substantial grounds to believe that the defendant has no valid defence” before the matter could proceed.
PEN fully supports these proposals and agrees that such measures would “provide a useful economical way to reduce the incidence of lawsuits which have an undue adverse impact on public participation.” PEN also believes that such legislation will “encourage freedom of expression on matters of public interest, and discourage use of the courts in ways that unduly limit that freedom.”
In April 2012 a brief prepared by the Canadian Environmental Law Association reported that “there is a continually increasing number of SLAPP suits being brought” in Ontario and noted that: “The mere threat of being sued is generally sufficient to intimidate and silence those who are being targeted. Due to the fear of being SLAPPed, others are also likely to be deterred from participating on the same or other issues of public interest, resulting in a chilling effect. The power of a SLAPP, thus, comes not from the strength of the filer’s legal position, but through the strategic use of the legal arena to intimidate citizen groups and exhaust their limited resources.”
In his 2008/2009 Annual Report Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner of Ontario urged the adoption of SLAPP suit protection. ECO Gord Miller wrote: “The public’s right to participate in decision-making over matters of public interest is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Efforts aimed at suppressing this right should be discouraged by the Ontario Legislature and other public agencies. The ECO sees a need for provincial legislation that would put both sides of development disputes on equal footing. Such legislation could serve to halt SLAPP suits in their tracks.”
PEN Canada is a nonpartisan organization of writers that works with others to defend freedom of expression as a basic human right, at home and abroad. PEN Canada promotes literature, fights censorship, helps free persecuted writers from prison, and assists writers living in exile in Canada.
For further information:
Brendan de Caires, PEN Canada, bdecaires[at]pencanada.ca or 416-703-8448 ext. 21