A B.C. Supreme court judge has dismissed a defamation suit brought on by members of the Non-Partisan Association against Mayor Kennedy Stewart over a news release he issued last year alleging “troubling reports of extremism” within the party’s board.
The NPA’s civil claim against the mayor argued that allegations of hate and extremism in the Jan. 28, 2021 news release were false and a deliberate attack on the character of each board member and done for political gain.
“Continuing media reports about the extreme views of Non-Partisan Association board members, including open support for hate groups, are deeply troubling and must be fully denounced and publicly condemned by NPA leaders,” Stewart said in the release at the time.
In a July 20 ruling, Justice Wendy A. Baker said the seven NPA board members did not establish “the harm suffered, or likely to be suffered as a result of Mr. Stewart’s expression, is sufficiently serious that the public interest in permitting the proceeding to continue outweighs the public interest in protecting the expression.”
'Clearly of interest'
Baker said concerns with the leadership of the NPA were clearly of interest to a segment of society in 2020 and 2021, as evidenced by the multiple news outlets reporting on the issue. She said some articles reported on concerns within the NPA membership itself as to a perceived right-wing shift in the party’s board.
“Whether those statements or perceptions are true or not, I find that some parts of the community would have a genuine interest in receiving the information on the subject of the political views of the NPA board in 2020 and 2021,” Baker said.
At the same time, Baker said she agreed with the plaintiffs that “these words tend to lower the reputation of the NPA board within the eyes of a reasonable person.” She also said she was satisfied the claim is “legally tenable and is supported by evidence that is reasonably capable of belief.”
The civil claim was launched by NPA president David Mawhinney, Christopher Wilson, David Pasin, Phyllis Tang, Federico Fuoco, Angelo Isidorou and Wes Mussio.
In their claim, they argued the mayor did not independently verify the contents of news articles that appeared in The Tyee, Vancouver Sun and Province, which revealed how some members of the NPA’s board had far-right political leanings.
A focal point of the reporting was on Wilson, a former bureau chief of the far-right Rebel Media founded by Ezra Levant, and Isidorou, who was featured in a photograph at a pro-Trump protest in 2017 in Vancouver.
Isidorou was wearing a red Make America Great Again baseball cap made popular by former U.S. president Donald Trump and flashing a hand gesture associated with “white power” extremists. The photograph was taken by photojournalist Jennifer Gauthier.
Isidorou announced his resignation the day after Stewart’s news release, telling Glacier Media at the time that he resigned because he planned to take legal action against The Tyee and Postmedia — which publishes the Sun and Province — for articles posted on their websites and in print.
Protection of Public Participation Act
Stewart’s action to dismiss the NPA’s civil claim focused on the Protection of Public Participation Act, a law approved by the B.C. government in 2019 to allow citizens to freely participate in debating matters of public interest without fear of facing unfair litigation and associated costs.
The Act is meant to safeguard citizens against strategic lawsuits against public participation — often referred to as SLAPPs — that limit or prevent the expression of individuals’ or groups’ points of view on matters of public interest.
“In the result, I find that Mr. Stewart has met the onus on him imposed by [the Act],” Baker said. “The Stewart press release is an expression relating to a matter of public interest.”
Stewart said in his submission to the court that the reason for issuing the news release was because the NPA board “had not done enough to deny the public imputations of extremism, hate, intolerance, racism, homophobia, misogyny or anti-Semitism among the NPA board members, as published in the news media.”
Stewart pointed out no individual members of the NPA were named and that "a reasonable person" would understand the release to be “an exhortation to the NPA board to do more to dispel the allegations and suspicions raised.”
Baker agreed the mayor raised a valid defence as to a non-defamatory meaning of the release, which she said may succeed at trial. She wasn’t satisfied the plaintiffs “established grounds to believe that Stewart has no valid defence on this basis.”
Mussio, who is a lawyer and former NPA director, said in an email Thursday that he and the other members who launched the claim are reviewing their options for appeal.
“I struggle with the broad interpretation of the Act by this judge because this broad interpretation, if upheld by the Court of Appeal, means that there are very few situations where a public official, who defames his opponent, can be held to account,” he said.
“In essence, it opens the door for an American-style free-for-all where slander and defamation of public officials is common place shielded by the freedom of speech defence.”
Mussio is the same lawyer who acted on behalf of citizens who accused Coun. Michael Wiebe of being in conflict after he voted on a temporary patio program for restaurants and bars in 2020.
The mayor’s office said Thursday that Stewart will not comment on the verdict.