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BC gov't reviving law to protect people from being silenced by 'strategic' lawsuits

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Legislation protecting regular citizens from legal action by people with deeper pockets has been re-introduced by BC’s New Democrat government, with the full support of a former Attorney General with the Liberal government that killed it in 2001.

Wally Oppal, who now works for Vancouver’s Boughton Law, says the new Protection of Public Participation Act makes it difficult for developers to sue environmentalists just to silence them.

“Where a project is about to go ahead and a person who’s well-motivated will criticize the project, the owners of the project will then sue on the grounds of defamation or some other basis. If the case is a frivolous one, the judge will do the appropriate thing.”

Oppal says similar legislation is already in place in Ontario and Quebec, as well as 28 states in the U.S. and it never should have been cancelled by the Liberals in 2001.

“It increases public dialogue and that’s the hallmark of a democracy and we want public participation in controversial issues that affect the public. For that reason, I think this is good, good law.”

Oppal adds strategic lawsuits against public participation, better known as “SLAPPs,” often limit action on matters of public interest because regular citizens can’t afford to take on corporate lawyers in court.

Alan Dutton says he wishes changes promised today by Attorney General David Eby were in effect when the member of the Burnaby Pipeline Watch was slapped with a defamation lawsuit by Kinder Morgan Canada.

“It cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend myself in court. The evidence against me was very scanty. It was simply that I was maintaining a Facebook page which included information about the protests against the pipeline,” he says.

“Now, we have a chance again to have legislation which will protect our constitutional rights. It should be protected under international law, but unfortunately, no federal government has chosen to further that international covenant.”

Kinder Morgan’s civil suit against Dutton and four other protesters was dropped in January of 2015.

Once today’s legislation takes effect, a judge can dismiss legal action that harms a defendant’s ability to speak freely on a matter of public interest.