A SLAPP in the face of freedom of speech

Quebec should bring in legislation to curb harassing lawsuits

Poursuites-bâillons (SLAPP)

For a long time, SLAPPs seemed remote to me. They weren't on my radar. No more. I've seen first hand how a SLAPP can come out of the blue and turn a perfectly innocent citizen into a quivering wreck.
First, a reminder of what a SLAPP is. It's an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. In plain English, it means legal intimidation of ordinary people by the rich and powerful.
It has become a worldwide phenomenon. A corporation might, for example, barge into a community, seek to impose a project and sue the daylights out of any resident who gets in its way. The idea is to muzzle opposition with the prospect of high legal fees.

That's what's happening to my cousin. I'll be vague on the details because I don't want to get her into an even deeper legal soup, but here's the situation.
My cousin is a retired high school teacher. She lives alone in a modest cottage in the countryside an hour from Montreal. She was enjoying the tranquility until outsiders bought the wooded land across the road and announced plans for a theme park. The prospect of heavy traffic, rampant commercialism and plunging property values has turned her world, and that of neighbours, upside down.
Of course, if the zoning bylaws and regulations allow a property owner to do something, there's not much the neighbours can do. But the entrepreneurs need city hall to make certain changes, so they're trying to silence those neighbours who put pressure on elected officials to respect their constituents.
Thus, when my cousin circulated a petition protesting against a new wall surrounding the park some eight feet high, twice what the bylaw allowed, the entrepreneurs sent her a legal notice demanding $7,000 - big money for her. The sum was for the "trouble and inconvenience" she was causing and her "attack on our reputation."
The entrepreneurs also slapped a suit for several hundred thousand dollars against a neighbour for threatening them with a gun - in fact, I'm told he was holding a spray-paint gun.
And so it went. The entrepreneurs have inflicted one dissident after another with headaches. It doesn't matter if the legal cases are ridiculously unfounded. They're strategic. The sleepless nights and fear of impoverishment that they bring is causing many residents to shut up, though not my feisty cuz - at least not yet.
But this is just a tiny example of the SLAPP trend.
A far bigger case is now playing out in L?vis. Two environmental groups have said a Montreal-based multinational company that recycles metals, American Iron & Metal, lacks the required approvals and is polluting the nearby Etchemin River. Wham, the company has hit the groups with a $5-million suit. It denies the allegations and claims its critics are trying to undermine its business.
Perhaps the most notorious of SLAPPS is the so-called "McLibel" affair in England. McDonald's said two low-income people, a postman and a gardener, libelled it by handing out leaflets critical of its restaurants.
Unable to afford lawyers, the activists defended themselves against the giant. A court ordered them to pay ?60,000 in damages.
Fortunately, Europe's highest human rights court stepped in. It ruled two years ago the British government had denied the two a fair trial by not giving them legal aid. But that came after a 15-year legal saga that had left the defendants exhausted (their 313-day
trial was the longest court case in English history).
About half of U.S. states have laws to discourage such grotesquely lopsided David-and-Goliath contests. Quebec is scurrying to catch up. A panel on SLAPPs, headed by McGill law professor Roderick Macdonald, recently handed its recommendations to the Charest government.
Still, as Macdonald notes, no sure-fire solution exists. For example, an anti-SLAPP law would let judges throw out any lawsuit they believe is intended to cow adversaries. But such a law would not prevent "soft-SLAPPs" - that is, lawyer's letters, which a judge does not see.
That's precisely what my cousin received. The letter threatened more severe financial penalties if she didn't pay the $7,000 within 10 days.
She hired a lawyer instead, so she stands to lose a lot of money.
If the SLAPP trend can clobber a retiree trying to live far from the madding crowd, it can clobber anybody. Quebec needs to find a way to protect free speech fast.
Henry Aubin is The Gazette's regional-affairs columnist.

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