Too often faculty who speak out on matters of public interest and participate in policy debates have found themselves silenced by lawsuits. New provincial legislation is being considered in Ontario to better protect public participation by allowing defendants to seek prompt dismissal of unfounded proceedings against them. On October 1, Sylvain Schetagne of CAUT and Mark Rosenfeld of OCUFA presented to the Justice Policy Committee at Queen’s Park to express their support for the legislation, as well recommend changes that would enable the bill to better achieve its objectives.
Our democracy depends upon protecting the rights of all citizens to participate in policy debates and a full and fair discussion of the issues. Academics have been the target of lawsuits in Ontario courts designed to silence them, including Quebec-based academics who published a book criticizing Canadian corporations’ operations in Africa, and a professor at Brock University who spoke out about church-related organizations’ work overseas. Known as SLAPP suits, these suits are brought forward with the purpose of stifling public opposition to a particular issue by overwhelming the defendant with expensive and time-consuming litigation.
If passed, Bill 52 (Protection of Public Participation Act) would establish a process for having SLAPP suits dismissed quickly – a motion to dismiss would have to be heard within 60 days. OCUFA and CAUT believe that in addition to this measure, four further steps should be taken in the Bill:
- To better address the financial inequality between parties in these proceedings, the government should make up-front funding available to litigants.
- Public participation should be defined to include conduct, as well as non-verbal and verbal communication.
- Senior officers and directors should be liable for damages to encourage responsible corporate conduct and organizational accountability.
- Finally, an express right to public participation should be included in the bill.
OCUFA and CAUT hope that the committee will consider these four amendments. We believe they will enhance the ability of Bill 52 to enhance democracy and ensure protection for voices of dissent.