Lawsuits brought for an improper purpose to silence expression and financially punish critics are known strategic lawsuits against public participation (also referred to as SLAPP). The Protection of Public Participation Act (“PPPA”) came into force in British Columbia earlier this year. The PPPA is our province’s anti-SLAPP legislation. Its purpose is to enhance public participation on important public issues. It protects British Columbians from being sued (such as for defamation, libel or slander) for expressing their views on matters of public interest. The PPPA provides a complete defence to these claims as it allows a defendant, who is being sued for expressing their views, to apply at an early stage to have the claim dismissed. This type of dismissal action is known as anti-SLAPP applications.
Since the PPPA came into force earlier this year, 2 cases have proceeded to trial which we reviewed in previous blog articles. The first PPPA blog post reviewed a dismissal action brought by the defendant who was sued for defamation by the plaintiff who alleged she made false allegations of rape, sexual assault and physical assaults against him. The second PPPA blog post reviewed a dismissal action brought by the defendant who was sued for defamation by Barry Neufeld, an elected Chilliwack school, for statements he made in response to Mr. Neufeld’s critical comments about the Ministry of Education and its publication of tools and resources relating to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
A third case (Hobbs v. Warner 2019 BCSC 2196) considering the PPPA recently proceeded to trial.
By way of background, the plaintiffs are the owners of Vanbex which is a company involved in marketing and consulting for companies in crypto-currency and blockchain industries. The defendant was employed by the plaintiffs as a software engineer who was hired to build and develop a code for the company’s product. After a few months, the defendant stopped working for the plaintiffs alleging constructive dismissal because he was not properly paid for his work. After leaving the company, the defendant learned of some information regarding the company which, in combination with the type of work he was asked to do while working there, caused him concern that the company was being used for criminal purposes. He eventually contacted the VPD, British Columbia Securities Commission and the RCMP. Following an investigation into these allegations, the Director of Civil Forfeiture started an action seeking forfeiture of certain assets owned by the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs sued the defendant in defamation for causing reputational and financial harm to them and their company through what they alleged as false statements to the authorities which led to the civil forfeiture. The defendant brought this dismissal action relying on the PPPA against the plaintiffs.
In order to successfully rely on the PPPA, there is a 2 stage process with the 2nd stage requiring the defendant/applicant to meet three separate requirements:
First, the defendant/applicant must persuade the court that the action arises from an expression that relates to a matter of public interest.
Second, if the first part of the test is satisfied, then the onus shifts to the plaintiff/respondent who must establish that:
(1) There are grounds to believe that
(a) the proceeding has substantial merit, and
(b) the applicant has no valid defence in the proceeding, and
(2) The harm suffered, or to be suffered, by the plaintiff/respondent from the defendant/applicant’s expression is serious enough that the public interest in continuing the proceeding outweighs the public interest in protecting that expression.
The application to dismiss the defamation lawsuit pursuant to the PPPA was granted. The trial judge concluded that there is a “significantly high public interest in protecting reports by citizens to law enforcement” and that the public interest in protecting them is quite high. In fact, the trial judge further noted that the public interest in protecting reports to law enforcement of possible crimes significantly outweighs any harm that could be found to have been, or be, suffered by the individuals or companies who are the subject matter of the criminal allegations.
We offer legal representation to individuals and organizations who are being sued for expressing free speech on matters of public interest. Contact us for a free initial consultation to learn more about your rights.