The B.C. government has introduced legislation that would prevent lawsuits against people or groups expressing points of view on matters of public interest.
Attorney General David Eby said the bill would safeguard people from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) and allow for open debate.
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“Lawsuits that serve to silence and financially exhaust those exercising their right of expression exploit our legal system and only serve those with significantly deeper pockets,” he said.
“We’re committed to ensuring a robust, healthy democracy that defends British Columbians’ fundamental rights.”
The BC NDP promised to bring in the legislation during last year’s provincial election.
Eby said SLAPP suits can limit or prevent criticism over issues of public interest.
The proposed law would allow defendants to ask courts to dismiss lawsuits on the grounds they harm the defendant’s ability to speak freely on a matter of public interest.
The legislation is aimed at improving access to a busy justice system and protect freedom of expression, while allowing for legitimate claims that involve real harm.
“We think that it is going to be very effective to protect people’s rights to participate in matters of public interest,” said BC Civil Liberties Association executive director Josh Paterson.
“We talk to folks all across the province who say they feel afraid of speaking out on whether it’s development being in behind their place or something being changed on the local golf course all the way up to large hydroelectric facilities and everything in between.”
The busy legislative agenda in Victoria means that the legislation will be debated next fall.
Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal has been calling for this legislation.
“British Columbians should have the right to participate freely in public debates without fear of retribution,” Oppal said.
“The legal system is vulnerable to so-called SLAPP lawsuits that are intended solely to censor public opinion, to intimidate people and to silence critics. SLAPP lawsuits strategically, and without merit, prevent free discussion on matters of public interest. I welcome today’s legislation.”