Just left the July 14 council meeting where I made a deputation regarding the proposed indemnification by-law that will allow Town employees and council members to sue individuals for defamation using the public purse–taxpayer dollars. Here is my deputation and I invite you to read it and make comment if you would like.
Madam Mayor, Council, and Staff
I am here today to voice my concerns regarding staff’s recommendation to have an indemnification by-law passed at this meeting.
Let me tell you why I am concerned.
I was working on an article with the intention of publishing it in my newspaper, The Georgina Post. I was investigating certain allegations and as a responsible and professional journalist, I was following up on information relevant to the story. As part of my research, I met with Mayor Quirk and CAO Winanne Grant and before I was able to ask my first question, I was told the Town would be considering an indemnification by-law that would permit council members and staff to INITIATE defamation lawsuits and use taxpayer dollars to do it. Within the context of the discussion regarding defamation, Ms. Grant told me I had “implicated” myself because I had discussed the information I had with other people. In no uncertain terms, when I left the Civic Centre that day, I was feeling very threatened.
I contacted my lawyer for pre-publication legal advice and he reviewed my story and all of the information I had gathered to put it together. He commended me for my due diligence and we believed my article was legally defensible.
However, as an independent publisher with limited resources, I realized I would not be able to afford to defend myself should legal proceedings be brought against me—especially if those proceedings were supported by the public purse. As a result, I did not publish that story.
And so, this by-law, without even being enacted, has had the desired effect. It has put a muzzle on free speech. It has intimidated and has used fear to quash one of our most sacred rights, a right that is guaranteed to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Everyone in this community should be outraged. There is something inherently wrong with a by-law that would allow the Town to use my money to sue me.
I consider the impact of this proposed by-law to morph into nothing more than strategic lawsuits against public participation—in other words, a SLAPP. And this kind of frivolous behaviour has been strongly criticized by the Ontario government who is preparing to bring Anti-SLAPP legislation into effect. They are doing this because they believe in our rights to free expression and participation in matters of public interest.
This is a very serious and important watershed moment for this council. Passing this by-law will chill public participation, not encourage it and the ironic part of it is, you will be doing it with our money. This by-law will allow you to use taxpayer dollars to initiate defamation lawsuits against the very people who have a right to public participation. That is a travesty. It was tried once before by this Town and the push back from the public was both swift and decisive.
I also spoke with a lawyer at the Civil Liberties Association and she asked why a municipality feels it needs a by-law that presumes it will launch defamation lawsuits in the future. Why indeed?!
I also have some serious difficulty with the process and the procedural fairness of this agenda item with regard to public consultation and notice. The staff report says this is an “administrative matter” and no public notice has been given. How can anyone consider a by-law of this magnitude and its far reaching implications on the public and the public purse, to be simply an “administrative matter”? This should have been a statutory public meeting, period! I also question the strategy of putting this item on a 9:00 am Tuesday morning agenda when the agenda for the standard Wednesday evening meeting tomorrow night, is so light.
Council needs to put some sober second thought into the passing of such an intimidating piece of legislation. The threat alone, in my opinion, is constitutionally and morally wrong. It drives a spear into the heart of democracy and with all due respect, I’m not sure that is the legacy you want to leave on this municipality.