Sunday, August 20, 2006

Quebec Environmental Pioneers Threatened With Being SLAPPed Into Oblivion

One of Quebec's oldest environmental organizations, the Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA) may soon have to close shop because of a multi-million dollar lawsuit from a scrap metal operator in what many observers believe is a SLAPP or "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation".

AQLPA was instrumental in getting Canada and the United States to sign a treaty to combat acid rain during the Reagan-Mulroney years. It is considered one of the major environmental groups in the province of Quebec and its president André Bélisle is a frequent commentator on the news.

SLAPPs originated in the United States and are usually defamation actions brought by large corporate actors to shut down criticism by non-governmental organizations or citizens.

In a front page article on Friday, August 18, 2006, the Montreal daily Le Devoir reported AQLPA's insurance company informed the association that its contract protecting it against defamation (director and officer liability coverage) has been retroactively cancelled to a point in time predating the launch of the defamation suit. AQLPA's attempts to find another insurer have all been turned down, according to the newspaper.

Without insurance, AQLPA may be forced into silence on any controversial issues (and which environmental issue is not controversial?) and may have to abandon all its educational and outreach activities.

The lawsuit against AQLPA and another local environmental group in a Quebec City suburb was brought by American Iron & Metal (AIM). The two environmental groups had previously obtained an injunction against the scrap metal dealer to stop a major project that it had undertaken illegally - as confirmed by a recent Superior Court decision.

The newspaper explains that AIM had begun work to install a giant shredder without having obtained a construction permit from the City, provided an environmental impact assessment to the provincial government or even applied for a certificate of authorization. As well, suspicious runoff originating on the site of the AIM facility was being discharged directly into a part of the Etchemin River. The environmentalists were given permission to have the soil of the AIM facility analyzed; a study conducted by independent experts confirmed the presence of biogases that could represent a serious threat to the health and safety of residents in the neighbouring communities.

According to Le Devoir, AIM claims that AQLPA is secretly being financed by a competitor and that the association's actions and statements have damaged its reputation.

The concept of SLAPP derives from work by George Pring and Penelope Canan, who co-authored the book SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out after investigating a range of behaviour that led to legal action against activists, including peaceful demonstrators, seeking signatures for petitions, and even reporting corporate breaches of environmental regulation. Pring and Canan characterised these actions as SLAPPs and distinguished them from commonplace lawsuits because they arose in response to participation in the political process by individuals. They suggest that SLAPPs are not intended to reach the courts (where they typically lose) but are designed to silence criticism through legal intimidation. The goal is to limit public debate and to allow corporations to continue their activities without restriction.

Typical targets of SLAPPs are local residents, neighbourhood associations, municipal governments, and peaceful protesters, who might be sued for reporting bylaw violations, speaking at municipal meetings or even for picketing and circulating petitions.

In Canada, anti-SLAPP legislation had been in force for a brief period in British Columbia under the New Democratic Party; however, it was abolished in 2001 by the current Liberal government. The law extended the defence of qualified privilege to political expression. It not only protected communications to government but also lawful attempts to influence public opinion (including various forms of consumer action such as petitions and boycotts). It also better equipped courts to identify and dismiss SLAPP suits early in the litigation process.
  • Defamation and SLAPPs (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, University of Ottawa): "The plaintiff's goal in a SLAPP is not to win the lawsuit, but is rather to silence a critic by instilling fear of large legal costs and the spectre of large damage awards. Despite their right to free speech, critics may be frightened into silence..."
  • Corporate Retaliation Against Consumers: The Status of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) in Canada (Public Interest Advocacy Centre): "The report describes a number of lawsuits or threats of a lawsuit in Canada that fit the definition of a SLAPP. This evidence suggests that SLAPPs are very much a Canadian phenomenon and have been initiated against consumers for public criticism of products or services as well as against individuals for advocating on environmental issues. The report briefly analyses the constitutional questions raised by SLAPPs and draws comparisons to the constitutional and judicial treatment of SLAPPs in the United States."
  • California Anti-SLAPP Project: the Project is a public interest law firm that provides assistance to people on the receiving end of SLAPPs. About half the states in the United States have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation and the website provides links to case law and statutes for California and other states. As well, the site offers other resources, including a bibliography on the issue (updated to 2003)
  • SLAPP's in Australia (Center for Media and Democracy Sourcewatch): "The following is the beginning of a list of Australian cases where civil litigation has transformed public debate into legal cases. There are all sorts of definitions of SLAPP suits, but the fundamental issue is the chilling effect on free speech. Thus, the primary definition used in compiling the list is that the cases have had, or could reasonably be assumed to have had a chilling effect on the rights and ability of people to participate in public debate and political protest". The Center describes itself as a "non-profit, public interest organization that strengthens participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism". Its most well-known project is perhaps the quarterly PR Watch which investigates the public relations or "spin" industry

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 3:36 pm

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