A Resounding SLAPP in the face for Politicians Wishing to Stifle our Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Speech is the fundamental right of every Canadian.  This right is, first and foremost, a protection for those of us who speak out about public affairs and public people.

Our Right to Freedom of Speech trumps a politician’s desire to punish those who would say unkind things about her.

If an individual runs for public office, we mere citizens have every right to comment on both their actions and character, and any politician too thin-skinned to deal with that should find something else to do.

Thin-skinned crybaby Phyllis Morris

One such thin-skinned politician is the former mayor of Aurora, Ontario, from 2006 until December 1, 2010: Phyllis Morris.

In October of 2010 Morris ran for reelection.  By most accounts she wasa pretty lousy mayor, and many news sources commented on her lack of leadership ability, perceived or otherwise.

One critical source was the Aurora Citizen, an online news website aimed at keeping the citizens of Aurora informed about the antics of their elected politicians.Then-mayor Phyllis Morris took exception to an article and subsequent comments about her published on the Aurora Citizen website.

In keeping with her strong beliefs of Freedom and Liberty for all, Phyllis Morris did what all defenders of freedom do when faced with critical opposition: she filed a lawsuit against everyone she could think of to shut them up.

She filed suit against Richard Johnson, William “Bill” Hogg, Elizabeth Bishendon, a number of anonymous bloggers who left comments and, last but not least, Automattic Inc., the makers of the blog software platform WordPress.

That’s akin to filing suit against Microsoft because someone wrote a Word document you didn’t like, or suing Ford Motor Company because you were hit by a drunk driver.  I suppose Phyllis Morris figured that if anyone had deep enough pockets to pay off her $6 million lawsuit it would be the makers of WordPress.

Lawsuits like this are only filed for one purpose: to stifle the free expression of ideas and information by a free people.  Morris clearly despised criticism and was willing to go to any extreme to stop people from saying things she didn’t like.

This type of lawsuit has occurred often enough to garner its own name: Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or SLAPP lawsuit.  The sole purpose of a SLAPP lawsuit is to silence someone by the threat a massive judgment against them.  In Morris’ case, she sued these individuals and Automattic Inc. for $6 million.  That’s a big enough threat to scare most people into silence.

While this sort of lawsuit has already happened many times in Canada, this time the judge clearly saw it for what it was and ruled accordingly.

Let me step back a little so you have the full picture.

Phyllis Morris first filed the lawsuit against anyone she could find:Richard Johnson, William “Bill” Hogg, Elizabeth Bishendon, a number of anonymous blog commenters and the makers of the blogging platform WordPress.

As she was still mayor at the time the suit was filed, she managed to convince the Aurora city council to fund her lawsuit.

She then attempted to have the identities of the anonymous blog commenters revealed so she could name them specifically in her SLAPP lawsuit.  She lost that case.  Then she made the surprising announcement that she was dropping the case entirely.

I’m sure losing the election and subsequently being forced to fund the lawsuit herself both played a large part in her new-found common sense.

However, since it was Morris who dropped the lawsuit she was still on the hook for the consequences of her ill-advised actions, and defendants Johnson and Hogg found a unique section of law that allowed them to make a claim against Morris for their legal costs.

In a weird turn of events, Morris never even contested the motion for costs and that resulted in a default judgment against her for the legal costs for Johnson and Hogg.  Elizabeth Bishenden had already settled previously, so she was not able to sue for costs.

This case is a resounding victory for common sense and our Right to Freedom of Speech, and sends a loud warning to politicians who think they can use public money to silence their critics through abusive actions in the courts.

Since the lawsuit filed against Johnson and Hogg was ruled to be a SLAPP lawsuit, they were entitled to what is called an “elevated award of costs”.   This is meant as a deterrent to politicians or corporations who think they can silence dissent through punitive court cases, and it is a very good thing.

Here is the relevant section from the ruling by Master Thomas Hawkins:

[27] The following evidence before me is uncontradicted.  Mayor Morris brought this action expressly in her capacity as Mayor of the Corporation of the Town of Aurora.  Initially and up to December 14, 2010 she had access to Aurora municipality money to fund this litigation.

The action was commenced without any prior demand letter to Johnson, Hogg or Bishenden from Mayor Morris or her lawyers.  The action was commenced without complying with the prior notice provisions of the Libel and Slander Act, R.S.O. 1990 ch. L-12 respecting broadcasts.  (Johnson and Hogg take the position that Aurora Citizen “broadcasts” its content as that term is defined in the Libel and Slander Act).

The action was commenced three weeks prior to the municipal election in which Mayor Morris was seeking a second term as mayor.  The action was commenced by notice of action rather than by statement of claim.  In her notice of action Mayor Morris expressly sought damages of $6,000,000 from the defendants.

In an action for damages it is unusual for the plaintiff to claim a specific amount of damages in the notice of action.  The notice of action was served on the defendants Johnson, Hogg and Bishenden immediately and without any statement of claim, in contravention of subrule 14.03 (4).

[28] I infer from these facts that Mayor Morris was not prepared to wait and see if a demand letter would have the desired effect of silencing Johnson, Hogg and Bishenden, and not prepared to wait until her lawyers prepared a statement of claim.

In my view, Mayor Morris wanted to hit Johnson, Hogg and Bishenden quickly and hard, in order to silence them as her critics sooner rather than later in the weeks leading up to the October 25, 2010 municipal elections.

[29] I therefore come to the conclusion that this action is indeed SLAPP litigation.

Morris was so desperate to shut up Johnson, Hogg and Bishenden that she couldn’t be bothered to file her lawsuit in a legal manner.  She wanted these people silenced, and silenced immediately.  That was all she cared about, and attaching a $6 million price tag to their Right to Freedom of Speech all but guaranteed the three would indeed be silenced.

That is just plain wrong.Abusive bully tactics from thin-skinned whiners like Phyllis Morris can never be permitted.

It’s obscene that, in a nation that supposedly prides itself on the Rights and Freedoms of every citizen, a politician at any level of government would dare try to extort a citizen into silence.

That Phyllis Morris now must pay back $21,275 in legal costs to Johnson and Hogg is the loudest and best “shot across the bow” I’ve ever had the pleasure to write about.

It’s refreshing to see our right to Freedom of Speech upheld so convincingly, and that a politician so clearly undeserving of elected office as Phyllis Morris was soundly put in her place.

 

In closing, I would urge you to read the entire 6-page ruling by Master Thomas Hawkins for yourself. It's great reading!

 

My previous articles on the Phyllis Morris case:

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