Plaintiffs Who Started Debate On Matters Of Public Interest Have Defamation Claim Dismissed

Published date21 January 2021
Subject MatterLitigation, Mediation & Arbitration, Trials & Appeals & Compensation, Libel & Defamation
Law FirmGardiner Roberts LLP
AuthorMr Stephen Thiele

Vigorous and passionate debate over matters of public interest are the lifeblood of democracy because it is often through those debates that society is able to positively move forward and the best policies are adopted. But sometimes those passionate debates descend into a war of words, with either or both sides unleashing a tirade of comments that are personal in nature and that are designed to harm the reputation of an individual involved in the debate. At the same time, parties who are unable to accept criticism during the public debate seek to silence their critics in many ways, including the commencement of expensive court proceedings. However, for a party who starts the public debate, a court might have little sympathy to permit an action for damages to continue.

This was the result in Schwartz & Red Lake Outfitters v. Collette, 2020 ONSC 6580, where the court dismissed the bulk of the plaintiffs' defamation action in circumstances where the plaintiffs had ignited a public debate over access to the Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, parts of which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its significant environmental and cultural importance.

The plaintiffs were an outfitting business and the individual owner thereof. In a radio interview, the owner contended that access to various parts of the park should be granted to motorized vehicles. A CBC News story followed. The defendant disagreed with the plaintiffs' view and following the news story began to post comments online about those views and about the individual plaintiff. The defendant posted not only on the CBC News site, but on other sites as well.

The plaintiffs did not shy away from the debate and even sent a personal message over Facebook to the defendant's wife threatening legal action for the defendant's comments and behaviour. The individual plaintiff alleged that the defendant had slandered his name in public, spread gossip and lies and that the defendant was 'being an ass and shit disturber'.

The individual plaintiff claimed the defendant had harassed him every time he went into town by insulting him, stopping his car in the middle of the road to scream at him, and screaming profanities at him while the owner was at his business premises.

In response, the defendant contended that all of his comments were tied to the public debate that the plaintiffs had ignited with their comments about the Provincial Park. Accordingly, the defendant brought a motion under s. 137.1 of the Courts of...

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