Law Times: public money for defamation lawsuits “a threat to free speech”

Glenn Kauth for The Law Times has picked up on the issue of government officials digging into the public purse to fund defamation litigation:

Several recent cases in Ontario have raised the issue of how governments officials handle defamation lawsuits. A case that has drawn considerable scrutiny is that of Toronto Coun. Adrian Heaps, the defendant in a defamation lawsuit dating back to the time he was a candidate for city council. The city’s plan to cover his legal bills in the case will come before council again later this month as anger over the payout grows…

Part of the controversy centres on the fact Heaps wasn’t even a sitting councillor at the time of the offence. But elsewhere, municipal councils are funding defamation litigation in similarly contentious circumstances.

In Wellington County, for example, the municipality is covering the legal bills for an action launched by the mayor of Puslinch, Ont., Brad Whitcombe, and county chief administrative officer Scott Wilson.

That move prompted the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to intervene in a bid to dismiss the case. It argues paying the two officials’ legal costs amounts to an effort to circumvent legal prohibitions on governments from suing for libel.

In Toronto, the same questions came up last year when Coun. Sandra Bussin sought city money to help her with a defamation case she had launched. Now, dissent over the Heaps affair has prompted a legal challenge by the fledgling Toronto Party against the politicians who voted to pay him. It’s clear, then, that the issue has become a messy one for municipal councils.

In the case of politicians, it’s fairly obvious that paying their legal bills to sue members of the public represents a threat to free speech. Defending city councillors who face lawsuits over actions they take in the course of their duties is one thing, but funding cases they themselves undertake is another…

Read the whole thing

UPDATE: The Toronto Star has more details on the case of Councilor Adrian Heaps, and the grassroots citizen group/fledgling political party challenging City Council’s decision to fund Heaps’ defence.