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Judge dismisses defamation suit started by anti-SOGI Chilliwack school trustee
Barry Neufeld was first elected to Chilliwack's Board of Education in 1992. (Barry Neufeld/Facebook)
A B.C. Supreme Court judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit a Chilliwack school trustee started against a former head of the B.C. Teachers' Federation.
The trustee, Barry Neufeld, filed the lawsuit after Glen Hansman made numerous comments in the press criticizing Neufeld for a Facebook post. In the post, Neufeld spoke out against what he called the "LGBTQ lobby" and B.C. public schools' Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) policy.
The case is notable because it was the first use of new B.C. legislation intended to stop so-called "SLAPP" lawsuits. "SLAPP" stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, and B.C.'s new legislation is intended to better protect the ability of people to speak publicly on matters of public interest, without the fear they could be embroiled in costly legal proceedings.
Neufeld's lawsuit hinged on an Oct. 17, 2017 Facebook post he made criticizing SOGI. The post read in part:
"A few years ago, the liberal minister of education instigated a new curriculum supposedly to combat bullying. But it quickly morphed into a weapon of propaganda to infuse every subject matter from K-12 with the latest fad: Gender theory. The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) program instructs children that gender is not biologically determined, but is a social construct. At the risk of being labeled a bigoted homophobe, I have to say that I support traditional family values and I agree with the College of paediatricians that allowing little children choose to change gender is nothing short of child abuse. But now the BC Ministry of Education had embraced the LGBTQ lobby and is forcing this biologically absurd theory on children in our schools. Children are being taught that heterosexual marriages is no longer the norm."
Various news outlets reported on Neufeld's Facebook post, according to the court judgment. As president of the BCTF – and as an openly gay man – Hansman was interviewed by various local media organizations about the comments several times. In those interviews Hansman said Neufeld should step down as school trustee or be removed; described Neudfeld's views as "bigoted" and "transphobic;" and said Neufeld's comments had "tip-toed quite far into hate speech."
In his statement of claim, Neufeld said that as a result of Hansman's comments in the media, he "has suffered damages to his reputation professionally, socially, and generally within his community, across Canada, and internationally. He also alleges to have suffered indignity, personal harassment, stress, anxiety, and mental and emotional distress."
Anti-SLAPP legislation is intended to protect people especially in cases of an imbalance of power, where a single individual may be sued by a large corporation, for instance. Neufeld argued that in this case, Hansman, as the head of a large and powerful teachers' union, had more power than him.
But Hansman argued that Neufeld's lawsuit had "all the hallmarks of a SLAPP litigation" because he was the only person named, despite the fact that other people were also publicly criticizing Neufeld for his post.
Justice Alan Ross found that Neufeld had failed to provide evidence of the damages he claimed to have suffered, and noted that Neufeld was subsequently re-elected as a Chilliwack school board trustee.
While Neufeld argued there was no factual basis for Hansman's comments about him being a bigot or hating transgender people, Ross said that in the Facebook post Neufeld himself acknowledges that he risks being "labeled a bigoted homophobe."
"Hence, it is difficult, if not impossible, for him to argue that there was no factual basis for Mr. Hansman’s comments," Ross wrote in his judgment.
Ross also found that Hansman's comments met the test for fair comment, meaning that the comments are on a matter that is in the public interest to discuss and debate, and are based on fact. Ross also found that Hansman's comments were not made with a motivation to harm Neufeld personally.
Ross said many of Hansman's comments were about the need for inclusive and safe schools, and that such statements "deserve significant protection."
Ross stayed the lawsuit from proceeding any further, determining that Hansman had established grounds for dismissing Neufeld's claim under B.C.'s new anti-SLAPP legislation.
With files from The Canadian Press