Si vous étiez menacé d'un procès en diffamation coûteux, cela vous empêcherait-il de parler des problèmes qui vous tiennent à cœur ?
At CCLA, we believe that defamation law should not be allowed to discourage people from participating in democratic discussion and debate. That’s the message we brought to the Supreme Court of Canada on October 11, 2022, in the Hansman contre Neufeld appeal. We are pleased to see that the Court’s majority decision agrees with the importance of protecting public debate and the free expression of ideas. The decision interprets and applies defamation law in a manner that appropriately balances the need to safeguard reputational interests with the need to promote and protect freedom of expression on matters of public interest.
The appeal stems from a debate in British Columbia about SOGI 123, a package of resources for teachers intended to introduce students to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in age-appropriate ways. Barry Neufeld, an elected school board trustee from Chilliwack, published a post on Facebook that attacked SOGI 123 for promoting what he considers an inappropriate “gender ideology.” In turn, Glen Hansman – then serving as president of the BC Teachers’ Federation – spoke out in the media, denouncing the Facebook post. He argued that Neufeld’s words were discriminatory and would foster an unsafe learning environment for 2SLGBTQI+ students. Based on these public comments, Neufeld sued Hansman for defamation.
The appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada considered BC’s Loi sur la protection de la participation publique, which in 2019 introduced changes to the law of civil procedure aimed at protecting open debate on matters of public interest. The law aims to screen out “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (a.k.a. SLAPPs) – lawsuits that may have little merit, but that have the effect of shutting down debate on matters of public importance. Despite the PPPA and similar laws in Ontario and Quebec, some Canadians find themselves dragged into lengthy, expensive legal battles due to their participation in public debates. The threat of a defamation lawsuit can often “chill” expression and discourage people from speaking out about important issues. In this case, Mr. Neufeld’s suit against Mr. Hansman was initially dismissed by the BC
Supreme Court, but this decision was reversed by the BC Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, restored the BC Supreme Court’s ruling and dismissed Mr. Neufeld’s claim.
In our intervention CCLA focused on the defence of “fair comment,” a legal doctrine that protects our ability to express opinions – whether it’s leaving a negative Yelp review or criticizing politicians. Public debates can sometimes be heated, impolite, and even caustic. Yet we believe that, to quote the Supreme Court of Canada, “public controversy can be a rough trade, and the law needs to accommodate its requirements.” While the majority decision does not alter the defence of fair comment as we had proposed, it clearly and explicitly recognizes that allegations of racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, are most properly characterized as comment, not fact. As a result, grounding a defamation claim in these types of allegations alone will likely result in a successful fair comment defence. In the circumstances of this case, it meant that the plaintiff’s claim ought to have been dismissed. The majority found that there was great public interest in protecting Mr. Hansman’s freedom of speech, noting that its subject matter, the form in which it was expressed, and the motivation behind it (to combat discriminatory and harmful expression to protect transgender youth in schools) are all deserving of significant protection.
As Hansman contre Neufeld spectacles, protéger la liberté d'expression aussi favorise l'égalité. Il permet aux groupes en quête d'équité et à leurs alliés de soulever des problèmes, partager leurs expériences, critiquer les personnes en position de pouvoir et gagner le soutien du public - sans craindre que la loi ne soit utilisée contre eux. Comme les tribunaux canadiens l'ont reconnu, la liberté d'expression est un pivot qui protège notre capacité de participer à la démocratie, de nous exprimer et de poursuivre la recherche de la vérité.
Un grand merci à nos créatifs et engagés pro bono conseiller en Hansman contre Neufeld, Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw et Alexi Wood.
Lire notre mémoire ICI.
À propos de l’association canadienne sur les libertés civiles
L’ACLC est un organisme indépendant à but non lucratif qui compte des sympathisant.e.s dans tout le pays. Fondé en 1964, c’est un organisme qui œuvre à l’échelle du Canada à la protection des droits et des libertés civiles de toute sa population.
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