A B.C. Supreme Court judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed against a Qualicum Beach nature advocacy group — the first such dismissal under the province’s Protection of Public Participation Act, according to the group.
The lawsuit was filed against the Qualicum Nature Preservation Society and its president, Ezra Morse, in May 2021 by spouses Richard and Linda Todsen, who own Todsen Design and Construction.
The couple alleged that Morse made a number of defamatory statements in regards to a proposed development and rezoning application for a 6.4-acre parcel of land in Qualicum Beach.
Among the statements, the Todsens argued that Morse implied that they bribed the mayor of the community in order to obtain the rezoning. Also at issue were posts made on a local Facebook group in which Morse alleged he was physically and verbally assaulted by Richard Todsen.
In their suit, the couple argued that Morse’s statements harmed their reputation with “factually untrue” statements, and that his statements outweighed the public interest in protecting his right to express those thoughts.
“The Todsens say that these statements have been very damaging to their reputation, particularly the allegations of bribery and assault as they connote criminal behaviour,” wrote Justice Jan Brongers.
“On the other hand, the Morse Defendants have not been silenced by the Todsens’ lawsuit since they are still engaging in public communication, including media interviews and fundraising efforts for their legal fees.”
Morse sought a dismissal of the lawsuit under B.C.’s Protection of Public Participation Act (PPPA), arguing that the case should be thrown out as a SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — lawsuit, meant to silence critics in the public sphere by depleting their funds for legal defense.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the judge ruled that Morse and the society were able to demonstrate that their expressions were related to “matters of public interest,” and the Todsens did not successfully prove that the defamation claim has merit.
In a news release, the lawyer representing Morse and the Qualicum Nature Preservation Society said the four-day dismissal hearing was “an important test” for the province’s anti-SLAPP law.
“Justice Brongers’ decision should reassure the public that our courts will safeguard their rights to democratic expression on matters of public interest as long as they are exercised in an honest and responsible manner,” said Chris Tollefson.
Morse also issued a statement, saying that the decision proved developers “who feel their projects are beyond criticism cannot leverage the courts to shut down democratic debate.”
While Morse and the society sought damages in the dismissal request, none were awarded in the case.