Canada’s Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from a former BC teachers’ union chief who is being sued for saying that an outspoken school trustee “on his toes … to hate speech” with public criticism of the province’s plans to teach children about gender identity.
In a case based on issues of freedom of expression and minority protection, Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear Glen Hansman’s appeal of a lower court ruling that gave Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld the green light to continue with his injury case.
Last summer, the BC Court of Appeals sided with Neufeld, saying it was important to ensure that “people who have controversial opinions on much-discussed topics” do not feel discouraged from defending their reputation when attacked.
In his application to persuade the Canadian Supreme Court to take the case, Hansman – former president of the BC Teachers Federation – claimed that the Court of Appeal missed the point of provincial legislation aimed at preventing people from using the courts to stifle free speech.
Hansman’s lawyers argue that the Public Participation Protection Act BC, introduced in 2019, is intended to protect the individuals who are being sued for speaking out – not those who are suing them.
“Complainant sues defendant in defamation, not vice versa. The very purpose of the statute is to dismiss such lawsuits when it wrongfully restricts the defendant’s expressive activity,” Hansman’s argument reads.
“To allow a claim to continue because of a concern for the plaintiff’s expressive activity is to turn the law upside down.”
‘Potential cooling effect’
Neufeld sued Hansman in 2018 for his reactions to comments, Neufeld criticized the Department of Education’s sexual orientation and gender identity program.
The controversy began with a Facebook post in which Neufeld said that allowing children to “choose to change gender is nothing less than child abuse.”
In interviews, Hansman said Neufeld’s statements were “prejudicial” and urged him to resign for violating “his obligations as a school board administrator to ensure students have a safe, inclusive environment.”
Neufeld went on to make several comments about the teaching materials, saying at one point that the day could come when “the government will apprehend your children and put them in homes where they will be encouraged to explore homosexuality and gender fluidity.”
Hansman was then quoted in articles in which he said Neufeld had “come quite far into hate speech” and created a school environment “that is discriminatory and hateful.”
Neufeld’s first BC The Supreme Court’s claim claimed that Hansman left the public with the impression that Neufeld had promoted hatred, committed hate speech and made the school unsafe for gay and transgender students.
The lower court cited the law on the protection of public participation by dismissing the case – saying that Hansman’s statements could fall into the category of reasonable comments and that “the public interest in continuing the procedure did not outweigh the public interest in protecting Hansman’s expressive activity.”
But the BC Court of Appeal overturned the ruling, concluding that the judge who made it failed to consider “the potential cooling effect” on others wishing to engage in controversial debates.
Consider “the situation of transgender and non-binary people”
Canada’s Supreme Court has previously considered the considerations lower courts must make when dealing with cases involving what are known as SLAPP cases – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
Judges need to weigh the public interest in allowing a lawsuit to proceed against the cooling effect on people being sued to have their say.
Hansman’s lawyers say their case is unlike any other that has come before the Canadian Supreme Court because it involves an outspoken plaintiff like Neufeld who is trying to silence someone while asking the court to protect his own right to speak.
“Neufeld continues to make a number of statements on social media, including praise for anti-LGBTQ laws in Hungary and comparing the ‘new gender ideology’ with ‘child care for [sexual] abuse, “the documents state.
Neufeld filed a response in which he asked the Supreme Court to dismiss Hansman’s appeal.
His lawyer claims the BC Court of Appeal reached the right decision because BC’s anti-SLAPP law was intended to “protect the freedom of debate.”
“The whole scheme will be turned upside down if it provides cover for the chairman of a powerful public union whose long-standing slander of Mr Neufeld through the media tried to destroy a critic and close the public debate on an issue of public interest.” the curator’s answer is.
Hansman argues that his views were based on his experiences as a gay man, as a member of BC’s LGBTQ community, and as a teacher.
His application to the court states that the BC Court of Appeal “unbelievably … did not even mention that Hansman’s expression was aimed at protecting and promoting equality for one of the most vulnerable groups in society, transgender individuals.”
They say the appeal will be an opportunity for Canada’s Supreme Court to “consider the situation of transgender and non-binary people in Canadian society” in the same way that the Supreme Court has done with the legal protection of gays and lesbians.