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Former B.C. school trustee's 'strip-tease artist' remark was defamatory, judge rules

Barry Neufeld was first elected to Chilliwack's Board of Education in 1992. (Barry Neufeld/Facebook) Barry Neufeld was first elected to Chilliwack's Board of Education in 1992. (Barry Neufeld/Facebook)
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A controversial former school trustee from B.C.'s Fraser Valley who described a political rival as a "strip-tease artist" during an election campaign has been ordered to pay her $45,000 for defamation.

Barry Neufeld's remark about Dr. Carin Bondar was an "effort to discredit her" that "crossed the line," according to B.C. Supreme Court Justice Michael Stephens.

"These defamatory words were objectively insulting and demeaning to Dr. Bondar, who was an elected school board trustee and a university adjunct instructor," Stephens wrote in his April 11 decision, which was published online Friday.

Neufeld made the comment during an online interview in September 2022 – while both he and Bondar were both running for re-election to the Chilliwack School Board – referencing a science-themed music video she had made parodying the Miley Cyrus song “Wrecking Ball,” which featured a brief shot of Bondar nude, from the back, wearing only a pair of boots.

Bondar won her seat back the following month, while Neufeld was voted out of office.

The defence

Part of Neufeld’s defence was that his remark was substantially true.

His response to Bondar's lawsuit includes a definition of "strip-tease artist" from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which reads: "An act or dance in which a person gradually removes her clothing piece by piece in a seductive or provocative manner, especially to the accompaniment of music."

But Stephens disagreed that the term was an accurate characterization of the short segment of Bondar's video in which she appeared nude, particularly because Neufeld had not provided any further context about the parody during his online interview.

"Factually, her clothes were removed," the justice wrote. "(But) she was clothed for the vast majority of it; the topic of the spoken words was science-themed; and she did not remove her clothing. In short, she was not, and did not perform as, a strip-tease artist."

Stephens noted Neufeld’s line of argument – known as a justification defence – can be successful even if a statement contains "minor inaccuracies," but not if the overall impression is both misleading and potentially damaging to someone's reputation, which he found was the case with the former trustee’s comment about Bondar.

Stephens also rejected an argument from Neufeld that his remark was an opinion protected under the legal principle of "fair comment," which can apply to “honestly held views based on proven facts,” but only if the factual basis is understood by those listening.

While Bondar’s parody video, titled “Organisms Do Evolve,” had been referenced in news articles – and on a billboard attacking her during a previous by-election – Stephens found Neufeld had failed to prove “on a balance of probabilities that the factual basis for his comment … was so notorious as to be already or readily understood by the audience.”

The defamation

To prove Neufeld's comment was defamatory, Stephens said Bondar had to demonstrate it would "tend to lower (her) reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person."

In her lawsuit, Bondar said she personally sees "nothing wrong with strip-tease artistry" – telling the court that decreasing stigma around healthy sexuality has been a major focus of her career as a science educator – but she argued there remains a "widely held societal view that strip-tease artistry is dishonourable or shameful, and particularly that it is inappropriate of a candidate for public office and a school trustee."

Stephens agreed that the remark had a defamatory meaning – based on "popular innuendo," or the way the words would likely be interpreted by the average person – and that it "genuinely threatened" Bondar's reputation.

He awarded Bondar $35,000 in general damages for "anxiety, upset and reputational harm" caused by the comment, plus $10,000 in punitive damages as an additional deterrent against Neufeld’s behaviour.

But the justice declined to award aggravated damages, which would have required proving Neufeld was motivated by "actual malice” during his 2022 interview.

Neufeld testified that he honestly believed his comment about Bondar was truthful at the time, and Stephens accepted that was the case – even if it reflected what the justice described as “reckless indifference to the truth.”

"A subjective honest belief negates the possibility of finding actual malice on Mr. Neufeld's part," Stephens wrote.

It’s unclear whether Neufeld will appeal the decision. The former trustee has not responded to a request for comment from CTV News.

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