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Court dismisses company’s libel lawsuit against teacher over Facebook postings

When Katie Mohammed turned to Facebook to air concerns about her community — as millions of people do every day — she didn’t think she’d ever be sued for libel, and become the centre of a precedent-setting case in Ontario’s laws protecting speech in the public interest.

“I’m just relieved that it’s over,” Katie Mohammed said Wednesday, after a libel lawsuit against her was dismissed. “It’s like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.”

By ALEX MCKEEN Staff Reporter
Wed., July 26, 2017

When Katie Mohammed turned to Facebook to air concerns about her community — as millions of people do every day — she didn’t think she’d ever be sued for libel, and become the centre of a precedent-setting case in Ontario’s laws protecting speech in the public interest.

A libel lawsuit against Mohammed was dismissed under relatively new provincial rules targeting “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” known as anti-SLAPP measures. The Stouffville resident was the first defendant to be awarded damages under the legislation.

“I’m just relieved that it’s over,” Mohammed said Wednesday. “It’s like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.”

Mohammed, a teacher, was asked by United Soils Management Ltd. for a retraction and apology on the first day of school last year after she posted to two Facebook groups, “Stouffville Mommies” and “Stouffville Buy and Sell,” criticizing the company’s plan to deposit fill in an in-town pit.

She complied with the request two days later, but was still served with a statement of claim for libel totalling $120,000 at the end of that week.

“As a mom and a teacher to receive something like that it’s just devastating as most people don’t have the means to fight a case like that,” she said.

Justice Thomas Lederer ruled in a decision Tuesday that the case would be dismissed under the anti-SLAPP legislation, which was passed in October 2015.

The legislation allows such lawsuits to be dismissed using the faster simplified procedure route, as long as a judge concludes that the case passes certain tests.

“There is no merit to this action much less ‘substantial merit,’ ” Lederer’s decision reads.

That ruling, along with the conclusions that Mohammed could have mounted a defence, and that United Soils Management wouldn’t suffer sufficient harm to justify limiting her expression, informedLederer’s decision to dismiss the case.

He awarded $7,500 in damages to Mohammed, to be paid by United Soils Management.

Alec Cloke, owner of United Soils Management, was reached by the Star but declined to comment because his lawyer, William A. Chalmers, was on vacation.

The company’s case focused on Mohammed’s use of the words “poison” and “children” in her Facebook posts, and argued that the choice of words falsely implied that the company was committing a crime, Lederer’s decision summarized.

Sabrina Callaway, Mohammed’s lawyer, said she is happy that damages were awarded, but not because the amount itself is likely to be seen as a deterrent to corporations considering strategic lawsuits.

“It just kind of reiterates that my client was doing the right thing by speaking out,” she said of the award.

Rob De Luca, a spokesperson for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that the more likely deterrent to arise from cases like this is companies’ fear of bad publicity.

“Attempts to silence individuals with frivolous litigation is going to itself be something that’s discussed in the public realm,” he said.

In addition to being used as a precedent in future anti-SLAPP cases in Ontario, De Luca said that the decision in Mohammed’s case may attract the attention of other jurisdictions considering similar legislation.

“Other jurisdictions are watching Ontario to see our case law developments on this,” he said. “These kinds of decisions will have a wider influence than simply in Ontario.”

Mohammed said that she hopes that her case encourages other Canadians that their rights to free speech will be protected in court.

“I just hope that Canadians realize that it’s important for people to speak up on matters of public interest and that there’s a law to protect them now,” she said.

https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/07/26/court-dismisses-companys-lib...

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