Neufeld v Hansman 2019 BCSC 2028

On March 25, 2019, the ”Protection of Public Participation Act”, S.B.C. 2019, c.3 received Royal Assent and came into force in British Columbia.

The background to this action lies within a philosophical dispute over the British Columbia Ministry of Education’s publication of tools and resources relating to sexual orientation and gender identity (“SOGI 123”). The Ministry published those tools to teachers with the stated goal of promoting inclusive environments, policies, and procedures in respect of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The plaintiff, an elected trustee of the Chilliwack School Board, does not agree with the use of SOGI 123 materials in schools.

The defendant was, at the material times, the President of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (“BCTF”). Prior to his election to that post, he was a teacher. He has now returned to being a teacher. It is a matter of record that the defendant is a gay man.

The plaintiff posted certain criticisms of the Ministry’s SOGI 123 resources on his Facebook page. His post attracted criticism and news media attention. In his capacity as the President of the BCTF, the defendant was interviewed about the plaintiff’s post. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant defamed him in that interview, and in subsequent statements that were broadcast and published in the press and online.

Justice Ross concludes:

…this is a decision under the new PPPA legislation, which allows for the dismissal of an action if certain criteria are met. The plaintiff commenced a defamation action against the defendant in relation to a matter of public interest. The defendant concedes that some of his words could be capable of defamatory meaning. However, he argues that there is strong precedent from the Supreme Court of Canada, on very similar facts, stating that the defence of fair comment would apply to his statements. I have found that, viewing the facts through the “reasonableness lens”, no reasonable trier of this case could distinguish the facts in this case from the facts in WIC.

I have further found that the PPPA requires me to balance the seriousness of the harm suffered by the plaintiff and the public interest in continuing the proceeding against the public interest in protecting the defendant’s expression. 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.

On the basis of the evidence before me and the analysis set out above, I find that the defendant has established the necessary grounds for a dismissal of the plaintiff’s action against him under the PPPA.