A municipality which broadcasts baseless and harmful public comments may be sued in defamation, despite legislation protecting expressions on matters of public interest. This was the conclusion of the Superior Court in Laurie Thatcher-Craig v. The Corporation of the Township of Clearview, released November 5, 2021, which found a defamation claim by the owners of a hops farm against the Township could proceed to trial.
The owners had applied for site plan approval to expand their business. The Township received unsolicited letters from the public opposing the expansion and describing the owners as deceitful, fraudulent and destructive of the environment through use of arsenic and other contaminants. The Township posted the letters on its website alongside the owner’s application. The letters quickly became some of the first search results for the business.
The owners sued the Township in defamation (among other things) for damages of $11 million.
The Township brought a motion under s. 137.1 of the Courts of Justice Act. This provision permits a court to weed out a lawsuit that limits expression on a matter of public interest unless the court believes:
i. the lawsuit has substantial merit,
ii. the defendant has no valid defence; and
iii. the harm suffered by the expression is so serious that it is in the public interest to permit the lawsuit.
The court’s decision considered this motion. It did not decide whether the Township had actually defamed the owners, only that the defamation claim could proceed.
The claim had merit
The court found that the owners’ claim related to expressions on matters of public interest – the community letters were part of the planning process, which the Township had a valid interest in keeping open, transparent and responsive to the needs of its residents. However, the claim had a real chance of success – the letters could lower the owners’ reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person and the business had suffered a sudden drop in revenue after the letters were posted.
The Township had no clear defence
The Township did not appear to have any valid defences – the letters were unsolicited and largely irrelevant to the Site Plan application, made unproven claims, and were posted without any measures to control the risk of harm to the owners. Viewed objectively, the letters were baseless attacks, not fair comments.
Dismissing the claim was not in the public interest
Finally, there was a strong public interest in having the defamation claim heard on its merits. The action was not about silencing the business’s critics, but about the Township’s unnecessary rebroadcasting of irrelevant and inappropriate attacks on the applicants. This type of expression was low value, and the public interest favoured allowing the action to proceed to trial.
Municipalities are responsible for the content they broadcast on their platforms. While public comments are an important part of the democratic decision-making process, municipalities should be aware that broadcasting defamatory comments can result in claims from those affected.
If you have any questions about this matter, please do not hesitate to reach out to our team today.