Corporations use lawsuits to Muzzle our Freedom of Speech

Canadians supposedly enjoy, under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Right to Freedom of Speech. That Right has been reduced to a mere privilege over the past 40 years through the use of Human Rights Tribunals and Hate Crime legislation.

What used to be our God-given Right is now reduced to mere “Approved Speech”. The trouble for Canadians is this: Who must we get that approval from?

I know there are many that will say I’m full of crap, and that Canadians do indeed have Freedom of Speech.

Maybe you’ll think differently about that by the end of this article.

The latest round of attacks now comes, not from our own government like I would expect, but from corporations using our court system to silence dissent. As ridiculous as it sounds, companies are routinely filing lawsuits against individuals who disagree with a company’s practices or adherence to, for example, environmental laws.

Take the case of Serge Galipeau and Christine Landry, a couple from Cantley, Quebec, who spoke out about the foul odours and toxic emissions from a nearby garbage dump.

In 2004, while organizing their neighbours to oppose the toxic dump, they accused the owners of ignoring environmental laws. They even went as far as demanding the government close the dump. In 2005 there was an underground fire at the dump, and the toxic fumes from that forced the evacuation of 175 nearby residents for 4 days while the fire was handled.

Throughout this time Galipeau and Landry called for the permanent closing of the dump, much to the displeasure of the dump’s owners. Finally, in 2006 the owners of the dump, Gilles Proulx, Denzil Thom and two numbered companies, filed a $750,000 lawsuit against the couple, raising that amount to $1.25 million a few months later.

All because the couple didn’t want to continue to live with a toxic and foul-smelling dump polluting the area where they lived, the couple was forced to defend their right to freedom of speech in court. They spent 4 and 1/2 years and over 4,300 hours defending themselves from this malicious court action.

When you are being sued for $1.25 million, you don’t sleep at all for the first few months,” Galipeau says. “Then, every night, the last thought on your mind is the lawsuit and the first thought you have in the morning is the lawsuit. You can’t relax. You can’t forget about it.”

The Quebec government finally put an end to the case, and awarded damages to the couple in the amount of $142,535, a far cry from what they put into defending themselves and their right to speak their minds on an issue of public importance.

Despite the ruling, the couple will likely never see a dime. One of the companies has declared bankruptcy and the other never even bothered to show up for the court proceedings.

This type of lawsuit is called a Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPP. It’s sole purpose is to place a massive financial and legal burden on the person who dares speak up, forcing them to defend a lawsuit for daring to speak their mind.

In 2004 the Public Interest Advocacy Center (PIAC) released a study titled Corporate Retaliation Against Consumers: The Status of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) in Canada. In the report they define what a SLAPP is:

The purpose of a SLAPP is to intimidate the target of the lawsuit into silence. By moving a dispute into the legal arena, the consumer is immediately placed on the defensive for exercising a right to complain and faced with the prospect of legal costs as well as potential liability if the suit is lost. As a result, many SLAPPs may fly under the public radar, as the threat of a SLAPP may intimidate its target into withdrawing the public complaint or criticism.

In other words, people are forced to surrender their Right to Freedom of Speech or face financial ruin. It’s not hard to see why this tactic is so effective. Corporations have deep pockets, or at least deeper pockets than the average family does, and they use those deep pockets to bludgeon people into submission.

The key aspect of the SLAPP, to force individuals into costly litigation, suggests that overall success of a SLAPP does not necessarily require a legal victory but a political one: to intimidate and to suppress criticism.

PIAC’s 2004 report delves into 14 cases that meet their definition, and then gets into the Canadian Constitutional protections for citizens who might face a SLAPP. In Roger Guignard v. City of Saint-Hyacinthe the Supreme Court affirmed the consumer’s right to criticize a company’s products or services both directly to the company and to other consumers. From that decision:

On the other hand, consumers also have freedom of expression…Within limits prescribed by the legal principles relating to defamation, every consumer enjoys this right. Consumers may express their frustration or disappointment with a product or service. Their freedom of expression in this respect is not limited to private communications intended solely for the vendor or supplier of the service. Consumers may share their concerns, worries or even anger with other consumers and try to warn them against the practices of a business. Given the tremendous importance of economic activity in our society, a consumer’s “counter-advertising” assists in circulating information and protecting the interests of society just as much as does advertising or certain forms of political expression. This type of communication may be of considerable social importance, even beyond the merely commercial sphere.

The PIAC report comments on this section of the ruling as follows:

It is important to note that this case was decided in the context of a government by-law, leaving no question about the applicability of the Charter. As discussed above, the Charter has been deemed not to apply to common law in the context of private litigation, so it is unclear as to the significance of these cases for consumers in terms of being targeted by SLAPPs. However, it can be argued that the courts are broadening the case for the Charter’s applicability to the common law and potentially to SLAPP litigation. The courts are also making strong statements about the importance of the consumer’s right of free expression.

What I was not aware of before reading about this issue was that the average person has no Charter protection from a non-government entity filing this type of lawsuit against them.

That is, as with most things we’ve been left by the late Pierre Trudeau, utterly ridiculous. His flawed 1982 Constitution has stripped Canadians of more rights than it claims to confer, and is generally not worth the paper it’s printed on.

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