Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

A SLAPP In The Face Of Free Expression In Quebec

by April 7th, 2010

By Daniel Romano

A SLAPP is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It is an insidious new instrument that has been rearing its head across North America. Used by governments at all levels, it attempts to squelch public outrage under the threat of defamatory lawsuits.

On March 26, 2010, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned a broadly-worded blanket interlocutory injunction which had been issued against several Internet bloggers who had been involved in posting comments on an Internet forum, The interlocutory injunction, which had been issued on July 9, 2009 by Justice Danielle Richer of the Quebec Superior Court, had sought to altogether prohibit the Internet bloggers from somehow defaming the Government of Rawdon, its mayor, or director general in any way under threat of contempt of court proceedings.

This appeal drew the participation of Quebec newspapers and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as interveners.
In quashing the interlocutory injunction issued by Justice Richer, the Quebec Court of Appeal noted that the blog, which had been established in 2005, contained some 240 webpages of various comments and that, at most, some 22 comments may have constituted commentary that may be highly objectionable and possibly defamatory, and that Judge Richer had failed by attempting to somehow prohibit any and all defamation at large by the bloggers as against the municipal government and its officials (which is tantamount to censorship).

The Quebec Court of Appeal declined to decide the issue of whether a municipal government can sue in Quebec for alleged defamation (despite an absolute prohibition in other Canadian provinces), despite the insistence of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that the issue ought to be addressed pursuant to new anti-SLAPP legislation in Quebec and not left to fester until a trial date sometime in the future.

On Nov. 1, 2009, Quebec witnessed municipal elections across the province, and Rawdon witnessed a change in government as well. The new political party had run, in part, on a platform which sought to shed light on the Rawdon government-funded defamation case.

When the interlocutory injunction had been issued by Justice Danielle Richer in July 2009, the mayor of Rawdon at the time, publicly stated in local media interviews that the case had cost Rawdon taxpayers $150,000, and she acknowledged a direct financial contribution of the Union des Municipalités du Québec to this Rawdon test case.

In March 2010, auditors appointed by the newly elected government of the municipality of Rawdon, revealed not only that the previous administration had run up legal bills of $541,675.25 (as of Dec. 31, 2009) but that legal work on the Rawdon test case had begun long before the proceedings were filed ex parte and on an urgent basis in early February 2008 in Quebec Superior Court (District of Joliette). The legal bills of $541,675.25 (as of Dec. 31, 2009) are more than the entire amounts claimed by Rawdon and the ex-mayor and ex-director general in their lawsuits!

CAGE has since noted that following the initiation of the Rawdon test case, another case was fashioned in the image of the Rawdon test case model. In December 2008, a majority of the municipal council of Beauceville authorized funding to sue a local media outlet for alleged defamation of the municipal government and its mayor. The text of the Beauceville Resolution actually states that it seeks to have the law firm that represented Rawdon in case number 705-17-002451-084 “do for Beauceville what they did for Rawdon.”

The case funding was suspended by a subsequent vote of the Beauceville municipal council in early 2009, and the government defamation action was later discontinued altogether.

There are over 1,100 municipalities in the province of Quebec. Allowing any one of them to sue for alleged defamation of the municipal government with taxpayer dollars, would give a wide open door for oppression of political opponents in no uncertain terms. One need only be reminded of the infamous Padlock Law in Quebec, which was originally designed to address communist propaganda, but later became a powerful tool for the more generalized oppression of political opponents and minorities in Quebec.

The state of the law in Quebec is now such that any municipal councillors who could carry a majority vote to authorize municipal funding for eager and willing law firms to file lawsuits on their behalf, would be able to intimidate critics, or minorities, or threaten to exhaust them all financially by forcing them to defend against such lawsuits.

Rawdon is a town of a modest 10,000 residents: how could it run up legal bills in the amount of $541,675.25 (as of Dec. 31, 2009)? That is just over $54 for every man, woman and child living in Rawdon. The theory of a test case is convincing, particularly so given an acknowledged financial contribution of the Union des Municipalités du Québec.

Quebecers should pay close attention to this case, especially any citizens who post critical comments about municipal governments on the Internet. If the Rawdon government defamation case does not meet the definition of a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, what does? One would hope that Quebec courts would be able to see it the way the average citizen of Quebec sees it, and balance the playing field for persons having to defend this kind of lawsuit pursuant to the new anti-SLAPP legislation.

Daniel Romano is a Montreal lawyer and founder of CAGE (Citizens Against Government Encroachment)

Open Government West Explores, “Who’s The Data For?”

by March 30th, 2010

According to the “Unlocking Government” report released recently by the consulting firm Deloitte Canada, core principles of open government include these:

  • Data should be easily accessible online. In today’s world, open access to data means that they should be easy to find.
  • Data need to be offered in accessible formats. If the government provides access to new information through an interactive map, for example, users should also be able to parse the actual raw data (to reuse it in a new application) from this source.
  • Collaboration between government agencies is important. Public leaders should expect their data to be combined with data from other sources and used in unique and novel ways and should approach the prospect in a spirit of collaboration and creativity.
  • Governments should be open about being open. Agencies should not quietly put data online. Rather, they should tell the public what they are doing and why, while seeking their participation and engagement.
  • These excellent guidelines help underscore that open government isn’t just for the usual suspects; namely, certain public officials, advocates, wonks and geeks. (I use these terms lovingly, FYI). At a Saturday, March 27 “unconference” session at Open Government West in Seattle, titled “Who Is The Data For?,” systems thinker and user experience designer Bryce Johnson (right) highlighted a range of answers. Designers and advocates should bear in mind, Johnson stressed, that among open government users are media; new residents including “English As A Second Language” immigrants; visitors and local tourists; families and other residents; government agencies; government vendors, and other businesses. Another point made during the conversation was that all the current emphasis on data and data sets shouldn’t obscure that documents – good old basic, revelatory public documents – need to be front and center also. That’s the idea behind a searchable database named Public Data Ferret that we’ve developed and located at its own special hub on this blog.

    What should the front door to the house of open government look like? The Beehive State has a pretty good sense of it. Utah has transformed its main state government Web portal into an impressive open government site. Utah walks the talk on easy access to and accessible formats for public data. The “dashboard,” or main page array of entry points by category is powerful in its simplicity, and relevance. Right away, the participant is invited to walk down hallways to “State Spending,” “State Contracts,” “Lobbyist Info,” “Campaign Contributions,” “Public Meetings,” “Data Sources,” and “Legislation.” This is the way to frame things. Click on “State Spending” and you go straight to the state’s public finance transparency site, where you can quickly access an appropriations reports menu and then among other items, the FY 2010-2011 appropriations summary, which is remarkably comprehensible. Utah’s getting the framing and the content right.