Newly-introduced anti-SLAPP legislation got its first airing at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver as a former president of B.C.’s teachers’ union seeks to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against him.
The case centres around comments Glen Hansman made about Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld after Neufeld criticized SOGI123, a B.C. initiative to bring understanding of gender identity and expression to classrooms.
In a Facebook post in October 2017, Neufeld said he “could no longer sit on his hands” and watch schools teach “the latest fad” that has turned into a “weapon of propaganda” for gender theories.
Hansman, president of the BC Teachers Federation at the time, was quoted in the news media as saying Neufeld’s comments were “bigoted” and that he had “breached his duty as a school trustee,” and thus should resign or be removed.
Neufeld filed a defamation lawsuit against Hansman in October 2018, claiming his remarks caused him “indignity, personal harassment, stress, anxiety along with mental and emotional distress.”
Hansman has applied to have the lawsuit dismissed under new legislation that targets strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP. Judges can use it to stop lawsuits that seek to block criticism of issues of public interest.
This case is the first since B.C. Attorney General David Eby brought in the legislation in the spring.
On Thursday before the hearing began, Hansman said he is not misusing anti-SLAPP legislation, as Neufeld claimed.
“Both of us are public figures,” Hansman told Black Press Media. “Me being able to make comments about him in his role as a trustee is fair game. If you’re in public office, you need to be prepared for people to make fair comment.”
Neufeld’s counsel, Paul Jaffe, said the anti-SLAPP law is designed to protect the “little guy” from large organizations that wield a lot of legal power.
“It’s ironic that we are here today with the BCTF, which is a union with 45,000 teachers, who are helping with hearing this case,” he said. “Their lawyers are here, all their materials are compiled by the union.”
As a public figure, Neufeld is open to criticism as part of Canada’s protection of free speech, Jaffe said, but the courts must weigh Hansman’s freedom of expression against Neufeld’s right to not have his reputation destroyed, “unfoundedly.”
“Is it permissible for proponents of SOGI to characterize those who disagree with them as promulgating hate speech, which is a Criminal Code offence, and as being transphobic, homophobic, bigoted and intolerant?” said Jaffe.
“Or does civil debate in a free democratic society acknowledge different opinions and embarking on a campaign to absolutely destroy someone’s reputation?”
The hearing was scheduled over two days.