The British Columbia Supreme Court has rendered its first decision under the Protection of Public Participation Act, S.B.C. 2019, c. 3, which received Royal Assent on March 25, 2019. In Neufeld v. Hansman, 2019 BCSC 2028, the Court considered an application to dismiss a defamation lawsuit on the basis that it would limit participation in open debate about a matter of public interest.
The matter of public interest at issue was use of the British Columbia Ministry of Education’s new “SOGI 123” resources, which are aimed at promoting a safe, inclusive school environment for LGBTQ+ students. The plaintiff criticized the use of SOGI 123 materials in a highly controversial Facebook post, which attracted media attention. The defendant, then President of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, was interviewed by news media about the Facebook post and denounced the plaintiff’s views as “bigoted” and “transphobic”.
The Court explained that the legislation is designed to provide a “screening mechanism” for cases which may have the effect of limiting public debate on an important issue. In most cases, this legislation will apply to defamation lawsuits that are strategically launched to silence a particular point of view on a matter of public interest.
In applying the legislation, the court will first consider whether there is merit to the claim, and whether the defendant can raise a valid defence. The court will then weigh the plaintiff’s reputational interest against the public interest in discussion on the matter of public importance.
In this case, the defendant was able to raise the valid defence of fair comment, which protects the expression of honest opinions that are based on facts. On that basis, the claim was dismissed. The Court went on to emphasize that the promotion of safe, inclusive schools for LGBTQ+ students is an “important” matter of public interest, which should be openly discussed.