B.C. Attorney General David Eby (Hansard TV)

B.C. moves to protect public debate from ‘strategic’ lawsuits

Deep-pocketed special interests can silence opponents, David Eby says

The B.C. government is moving to prevent ‘unfair’ lawsuits designed to intimidate or prevent people from taking part in public debates.

Attorney General David Eby presented the Protection of Public Participation Act in the B.C. legislature Tuesday, saying it won’t be debated until next fall to give the public time to study it. The legislation restores a provision that was briefly in effect in 2001, and is similar to recent Ontario legislation protecting freedom of speech, he said.

“Lawsuits that serve to silence and financially exhaust those exercising their right of expression exploit our legal system and serve those with significantly deeper pockets,” Eby said.

The new law would allow a defendant to apply through an “expedited process” to have a lawsuit dismissed on the basis that it interferes with free speech on a public issue. It would be up to the plaintiff to convince a judge that harm from the speech would outweigh the public interest in protecting it.

“Previously the person who was sued had to show that the person who was suing them had a bad intent, that their intent was to silence them,” Eby said. “It’s a very difficult thing to prove unless you have an email or a witness who says the person told them that that’s what their intention was.

“This bill shifts it so the person who’s being sued only needs to show that the effect of the litigation is that their expression on a matter of public interest is affected.”

The bill allows people to apply for dismissal in a case that is already ongoing, which is why its passage is being delayed until fall, Eby said.

The government doesn’t have statistics on the number of “SLAPP” (strategic lawsuit against public participation) cases there are, because many are threatened but not acted upon, he said.

Meghan McDermott, staff counsel for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the change is overdue.

“People have been sued for speaking at public meetings, for protesteing and even for circulating petitions,” McDermott said.

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