Lawyer for Ken Denike and Sophia Woo issues threat—even though school-board debates are privileged
Progressive Vancouver school trustees have more or less been told to shut up about their NPA colleagues playing footsie with the Christian Right during the last election campaign.
In a letter to five Vision Vancouver and one COPE trustee, Vancouver lawyer Jonathan Tweedale issued a warning to "cease and desist" what he characterized as a "defamatory campaign" against his clients, NPA trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo.
Without citing detailed sources in his letter, Tweedale alleged that the Vision and COPE trustees made a series of statements falsely suggesting that Denike and Woo were "fanning homophobic fear" and "stoking fear and promoting hate".
Moreover, the lawyer claimed that the Vision and COPE trustees have implied that his clients oppose the board's antidiscrimination policies.
"The Defamatory Statements are false and misleading," Tweedale thundered. "The Defamatory Statements have included references to two videos. Neither video provides any justification for the Defamatory Statements made."
Tweedale's allegations have not been proven in court.
The legal flareup has arisen out of the Vision-controlled board's decision last month to censure the two NPA trustees, which Tweedale claimed was beyond its legal powers.
Last September, Denike and Woo called a news conference to highlight their concerns about an Out in Schools booklet. According to the then-candidates, this included links to pornographic material.
They also appeared in two videos, including one in which they made comments at what their lawyer calls a "private picnic".
"A substantial number of the Defamatory Statements refer to the Picnic Video as a putative basis for the allegation that my clients have misrepresented the District's anti-discrimination policies to District parents," Tweedale wrote. "The allegation is false. My clients strongly deny having made any misrepresentations concerning the Board's anti-discrimination policies."
I've received several of these types of letters over the years. And in some of those instances, they were designed to quell public debate.
The fact is that anything that Vision or COPE trustees say at a board of education meeting is protected by what's known as "privilege". This means that even if they make defamatory statements while debating any motion on the floor, they can't be held liable because the courts have recognized that elected officials must have an unfettered right to discuss issues openly in their legislative chambers. This also applies in Parliament, the legislature, and city council.
And media outlets have the freedom to report on what's said in these legislative chambers, no matter how unpleasant, without fear of being sued for defamation.
Tweedale's letter might have the effect of muzzling some in the community. But let's hope it doesn't have any trustee looking over his or her shoulder when they're conducting honest debates at public meetings about the best approach to stop homophobic bullying in schools.