Just six months after it became law, the Protection of Public Participation Act was invoked in unusual circumstances by a defendant in court.
Former B.C. Teachers Federation president Glen Hansman relied on the NDP government’s new law as a defence in a defamation suit brought against him and succeeded in having the case dismissed.
When the bill was first introduced much of the debate was about how it would apply to journalism, or curb strategic lawsuits against public participation on issues such as environmental arguments.
But the first use of the law in B.C. stemmed from a public argument over how the education system was handling the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, also known as SOGI.
Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld was strongly critical of curriculum changes the previous government developed to include gender identity and expression in school codes of conduct prohibiting bullying. He posted a diatribe on social media in 2017 about the new policy.
Neufeld wrote: “At the risk of being labelled a bigoted homophobe, I have to say that I support traditional family values.”
He said the government was “forcing a biologically absurd theory on children in our schools.
“Children are being taught that heterosexual marriages is no longer the norm. Teachers must not refer to ‘boys and girls,’ they are merely students. They cannot refer to mothers and fathers either.”
A public argument ensued in which Hansman took part, saying among other things that Neufeld had “tiptoed quite far into hate speech” and “shouldn’t be anywhere near students.”
Neufeld apologized later “to those who felt hurt” by his views, but continued speaking publicly against the sexual orientation gender identification policy.
His own school board and the ministry asked him to resign, but he refused.
He filed suit last year, saying he had been defamed numerous times by Hansman as part of a smear campaign that included Education Minister Rob Fleming.
He argued that the statements and others suggested that he is bigoted, hates homosexuals and transgender people, had committed the criminal offence of hate speech and was discriminatory, misogynistic and a safety risk to students.
Hansman, who finished his term as BCTF president earlier this year, responded with an application to dismiss the suit, citing the protection of public participation law.
Justice Alan Ross described that law as a procedure to screen out actions that limit a defendant’s participation in public debate.
“The PPPA seeks to balance the rights of individuals to protect their reputations against the obvious benefit to a democratic society of protecting free speech and rigorous debate on issues of public interest.”
The judge ruled that the law protects Hansman from the defamation claim.
He said the fact that Neufeld was re-elected to the school district in the middle of the argument is evidence of the limited damage that he suffered.
He also ruled that many of Hansman’s remarks were about the need for inclusive and safe schools.
“Those statements deserve significant protection. The entirety of the debate revolved around an issue that the plaintiff concedes is an important one.”
Ross said if he had to balance the potential damages against the public interest in the debate, he wound find for the latter.
He said the action arises out of significant philosophical differences about the propriety of the Education Ministry’s SOGI material.
But the outcome has nothing to do with the “correctness” of either position. It’s a decision about whether Hansman met the criteria under the new PPPA for dismissal of the case against him, he said.
The judge found that Hansman conceded some of his remarks were defamatory, but there is a court precedent that he has the defence of fair comment.
“The plaintiff has an interest in claiming damages and clearing his good name. However, the public has an interest in protecting expressions that relate to public debate.
“In balancing those interests, I find that the interest in public debate outweighs the interest in continuing the proceeding on these facts.”
The B.C. Liberal government introduced the SOGI material in 2016, after the B.C. Human Rights Code was changed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression” along with sexual orientation.
The BCTF has filed a human rights complaint against Neufeld on those grounds.