Defamation is a statement made to a third party that is false and damaging to the reputation, finances, or well-being of an individual or organization. Defamation can occur in writing (libel) or orally (slander). We have previously discussed cases in which a defamation claim was made after negative reviews of a business or individual professional were posted online. Recently, another defamation case made headlines, in large part because the target of the claim is the Premier of Ontario for comments he made in a public media interview which were then widely disseminated throughout the country.
Former OPP Deputy Commissioner Terminated
The origin of the claim began after the appellant, Brad Blair (“Blair”), a former Deputy Commissioner of the OPP, was terminated from his role while under consideration for the role of Commissioner. In the weeks before his termination, Blair had made whistleblower claims that the Premier had requested the OPP purchase a camper-style van and have it retrofitted with various upgrades including a leather reclining sofa, television, and desks. Blair claimed the Premier’s office had made the request and asked the OPP to “keep the costs off the provincial books”, according to CBC News. In response to the claim, the Premier’s office said the allegations were “categorically false”. Soon after, Blair was fired from the OPP.
After Blair’s termination, another candidate, who had a personal connection to the Premier, was chosen for the role. Blair wrote a letter to the provincial Ombudsman, seeking a formal review of the decision. In the letter, he claimed there had been a number of improprieties as well as political interference in the appointment process, and claimed an independent review was necessary in order to ensure continuing public confidence in the OPP. The letter was also sent to several media outlets, and the contents were widely reported.
One media outlet asked the Premier to comment about the claims in the letter at an event, to which he responded,
“You know my friends this is gonna move forward. I could sit here and give you all the items that weren’t accurate in that letter and there’s endless ones. I could give you a list of all the Police Act that was broken throughout that whole letter, but none of you want to report on that,”
In response to the Premier’s public claim that Blair had breached the Police Act in writing the letter, Blair filed a $5 million claim for defamation against the Premier, which said:
“Premier Ford made these defamatory remarks fully aware that the natural and probable consequence of making these defamatory statements would be the widespread re-publication by the Canadian media, which would be heard and viewed by millions.”
Premier Calls for Defamation Claim to be Dismissed Under Anti-SLAPP Legislation
The Premier filed a motion to dismiss the defamation claim, alleging it constituted an anti-SLAPP claim. SLAPP, which stands for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, refers to court actions that are advanced for the purpose of preventing commentary on matters of public interest. In order to successfully make an anti-SLAPP claim, the party advancing the claim must be able to demonstrate that:
- The claim relates to a matter of public interest
- The claim has substantial merit;
- There is no reasonable defence to the claim; and
- The public interest in allowing the claim to proceed outweighs the public interest in limiting the expression in question.
The Premier claimed that the defamation suit was an attempt to prevent the Premier from speaking publicly about Blair’s alleged breach of the law, which was a matter of public interest. The Court observed that the case was not a traditional anti-SLAPP claim, as Blair was not an entity with significant power attempting to ‘gag’ the Premier from speaking about him in public. Nonetheless, the case did involve a matter of public interest, and so the Court examined it from an anti-SLAPP perspective.
Finding that the public interest in free expression and public debate outweighed Blair’s right to have the claim continue, the Court dismissed the claim, saying the following:
“Tracking the language in s. 137.1(4)(b), the plaintiff has not satisfied the court that the harm suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the defendant’s expression is sufficiently serious that the public interest in permitting the plaintiff’s action to continue outweighs the public interest in protecting that expression.”
Blair Appeals, Likening his Fight Against the Premier to that of David and Goliath
Blair recently appealed the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal, claiming that the Premier’s comments about Blair’s breaking of the law amounted to opinion, and not fact. Further, Blair’s lawyer has raised concerns that the dismissal of the claim may have been related to the Premier’s position, saying:
“This case is about resolving the question of when it is appropriate to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against the most powerful politician in the province.”
No decision has been released to date, as the Court has reserved its decision for a later date. We will continue to follow the case, and provide updates as necessary.
Contact the Defamation Lawyers at Milosevic Fiske LLP in Toronto for Exceptional Representation in Libel and Slander Matters
If you are an individual or organization and believe that defamatory comments have been made about you in the media or online, or if you have been accused of making defamatory statements, contact the highly knowledgeable defamation, libel and slander lawyers at Milosevic Fiske LLP as soon as possible. Our lawyers have extensive experience representing clients in defamation cases and have successfully defended an anti-SLAPP motion in a major precedent-setting decision on the law of slander. Our goal is to immediately protect you, your reputation, and your livelihood. Call us at 416-916-1387 or contact us online.