United Soils Management Ltd. v. Mohammed, 2017 ONSC 4450 (July 25, 2017)
Ontario Superior Court of Justice
United Soils Management Ltd. operates a gravel pit near a lake in the Canadian province of Ontario that is the source of drinking water for much of the city of Toronto. Id. para. 4. A community member, Katie Mohammed, posted concerns on Facebook about the company's plans to fill the pit with potentially contaminated fill materials. Id. The company sued Mohammed for defamation, seeking $120,000 in damages. Judge Lederer of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice introduced the decision by stating:
In Canada we value participation in our public discourse. Our citizens and those who reside here are encouraged to take part in public issues.
Over some time a practice designed to discourage if not thwart this involvement developed. It made use of the court. Parties, often corporations and other well-resourced members of our society, when confronted with negative comment or publication implicating matters of public interest of concern to them, commenced a law suit for libel. The purpose of the litigation was not to realize on a claim for damages. It was to suggest a potential vulnerability to the individual making the impugned observation or causing its publication. The goal was to illicit a quick retraction and apology and to have the party remove herself, himself or itself from taking part in any further public debate of the issue at hand.
The practice was sufficiently utilized that it attracted a name: “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” colloquially “SLAPP” or, alternatively “Gag Proceeding.”
Id. at paras. 1-3.
Mohammed moved to dismiss the defamation action by invoking a 2015 amendment to the Courts of Justice Act, which permits courts to summarily dismiss proceedings arising from expressions that relate to a matter of public interest. See Courts of Justice Act, sec. 137.1 (available at https://www.canlii.org/en/on/laws/stat/rso-1990-c-c43/latest/rso-1990-c-...). The amendment was intended by lawmakers to protect public discourse and prevent the use of litigation to shut down or deter public debate.
After reviewing the facts, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice determined that Mohammed’s Facebook posts were an expression related to a matter of public interest (discourse over the local municipality’s decision to allow United Soils Management to deposit fill in its gravel pit) and the company’s defamation suit lacked substantial merit. Id. at paras. 18-41. The court dismissed the defamation proceeding and awarded $7,500 damages against United Soils Management to compensate Mohammed for her stress associated with the suit. Id. at paras. 70, 81.