Another SLAPP or a demand for accountability?
Former Premier Danny Williams is suing a local blogger for comments made on his piece of internet real estate, Rock Solid Politics.
The blogger, who was denied an opportunity to seek the Progressive Conservative Leadership when Williams resigned has morphed into an outspoken critic of Williams and the local PC Party. Last summer, Brad Cabana sought the leadership of the capricious Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador. Judging by obnoxious twitter/facebook posts from party and opposition staff, he is no more welcome in the Liberal camp than with his former buddies, the Progressive Conservatives.
That said, like a new age Energizer Bunny, the zealous convert has feverishly followed the machinations of iron ore and hydro development in Labrador. He has been trying to jam round pegs into square holes to create an atmosphere of conspiracy which links political, bureaucratic and big business via a connect the dot process.
He is not alone, other bloggers have pioneered the bandwagon conspiracy show.
So, what gives in this case? Has Danny Williams notoriously thin skin finally had enough of the cross checks to his reputation, or is this a case of big money trying to silence critics?
Where does responsible public participation end and defamation begin? How does government protect public participation/commentary on public issues without individuals fearing frivolous litigation? The limits of freedom of expression on matters of public interest are already the subject of extensive Canadian jurisprudence, which continues to address the issue on a case by case basis.
Early this year, I took some offense to the chatter on some of these local blogs when the reputation of a retired senior career civil servant was kicked around as part of the grand conspiracy theory. I felt that the blogger in question had crossed the line. Public commentary, observations and opinions are one thing - cock-eyed conspiracy theories that have the potential to damage the reputations of individuals who have provided great service to this province are another.
It will be interesting to watch this case. Can…will, the plaintiffs be able to prove that the protected activity of public participation has been exceeded?
If, as some critics allege, that these lawsuits alleging false and defamatory allegations, fails to hold-up in court, than the courts should sanction the plantifs for wasting the time of the justice system. Significant punitive financial measures should be taken to ensure that the rich and powerful are not launching frivolous lawsuits to dissuade public opinion and commentary.
In light of the circus that was five year saga of John Hickey’s frivolous defamation case against former Premier Roger Grimes, the Minister of Justice needs to implement a committee to review how our courts deal with attempts to use the court to stymie public opinion. For starters, a fast track approach to dealing with such cases should be implemented. A test to determine if the defamation charge is valid should be established. If the plaintiff fails to meet the test, the charges should be dismissed with costs should be awarded to the defendant. The government should also consider establishing some sort of civil defense fun that helps defend individuals in these types of proceedings.
Our democracy is founded on citizen engagement. If we are forced underground, or are silenced, than democracy is threatened. As a person who has participated in public discussions for decades, I know the importance of protecting individual rights. Those of us that engage in public discussion often walk a fine line. There was a period, when I resorted to writing under a pseudonym because I feared the repercussions of using my own name. I have had to resort to the courts for remedies. I know that my scribbles can, and do impact my professional progression. It is my choice to contribute to the public discussion, I understand, and know the inherent risks.
That said, the laws of the land have to reflect the changes in technology, the forums for discussion and the passion of debate. As voter engagement declines at the ballot box, we need more voices to encourage more debate, discussion to effect meaningful change. Agents of change, voices of reason and passion need to be protected against frivolous law suits designed to curb public engagement and accountability.