(OTTAWA) A defamation lawsuit brought by a school trustee against the president of a teachers’ union should not proceed, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday, in a ruling that underscores the importance of protecting expression intended promote tolerance and respect.
Barry Neufeld, who was a school counselor in Chilliwack, British Columbia, had made negative comments in 2017 about the implementation of a ministry program on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools in Province.
In a Facebook post, Neufeld called the initiative a “propaganda tool”, which teaches the “biologically absurd theory” that “gender is not biologically determined, but is a social construct”. The school counselor expressed support for “traditional family values” and hailed countries that “have had the courage to stand up to these radical cultural nihilists”.
Glen Hansman, then-director of the Teachers’ Federation, criticized Neufeld’s comments in an interview. Mr. Hansman, a gay teacher, called Mr. Neufeld’s views intolerant and bigoted. He accused him of undermining the safety and inclusivity of transgender and 2SLGBTQ+ students, and he questioned his suitability for the elected position of commissioner.
The school counselor then sued for defamation. Mr. Hansman had initially succeeded in having the complaint dismissed, citing the provincial law against SLAPPs, which aims to protect debate on matters of public interest.
The trial judge found that Mr. Hansman had “a valid defense of fair comment” and that “the value of protecting his expression outweighed the harm caused” to Mr. Neufeld by that expression.
But the British Columbia Court of Appeal reinstated the defamation suit, saying the trial court erred in law in finding there was likely a “valid defense of fair comment” and weighing the competing public interests. The appeals judges also found that the trial court failed to consider the chilling effect Mr Hansman’s remarks could have on public debate.
In a six-to-one decision on Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada restored the original trial order dismissing the defamation suit.
Writing for the majority, Justice Andromache Karakatsanis admits that Commissioner Neufeld was only criticizing a policy and did not express hatred towards the transgender community, or that his words did not create an unsafe environment for transgender students.
“But his arguments miss the point,” added Judge Karakatsanis. Mr. Neufeld’s right to criticize a government initiative is not disputed. Rather, the central question is whether Mr. Hansman had the right to respond to Mr. Neufeld in the manner he chose without risking civil liability. In my opinion, he had that right.
“Not only does protecting Mr. Hansman’s expression preserve freedom of discussion on matters of public interest, but it also promotes equality, another core democratic value,” the Supreme Court concluded.
In a statement released by the Teachers’ Federation, Hansman hopes the decision will make it easier for anyone who stands up for a marginalized community, “without having to fear retaliatory lawsuits”.