Supreme Court ruling a human rights victory for those who speak out against harmful discourse
May 19, 2023 – Ottawa, Ontario – Canadian Human Rights Commission
In response to today's Supreme Court Decision in the human rights case of Hansman v Neufeld, Charlotte-Anne Malischewski, Interim Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, issues the following statement:
The Canadian Human Rights Commission applauds today's Supreme Court ruling as a victory that affirms people's right to speak out against harmful or discriminatory discourse without fear of being silenced by Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, known as SLAPPs. These lawsuits are sometimes used by individuals or corporations to intimidate and silence public critics by forcing them into lengthy, expensive legal battles.
This judgement serves as an excellent example of the Commission's public interest advocacy role before the courts. The Commission, recognizing the important issues this case raised for equity-seeking groups, intervened in this civil case, appearing alongside other interveners to help contribute to this positive result.
This case began with a dispute in the media between two individuals: Mr. Hansman and Mr. Neufeld. Mr. Hansman, a teacher, was the president of the British Columbian Teachers' Federation (BCTF). He also identified as a gay man. The respondent, Mr. Neufeld, was an elected public school board trustee.
Following an amendment in 2016 to the BC human rights legislation to include “gender identity or expression,” the BC Ministry of Education collaborated with other interested organizations including the BCTF. They agreed to publish teaching materials to foster inclusion and respect for students who may face discrimination because of their gender identity or expression.
Mr. Neufeld publicly criticized the initiative in online posts, which triggered significant controversy including calls for him to resign. Many people in the community considered his statements derogatory of transgender and other 2LGBTQQAI+ individuals.
Mr. Hansman publicly denounced Mr. Neufeld's views, including to the news media, calling them bigoted, transphobic and hateful. He accused Mr. Neufeld of undermining safety and inclusivity for transgender and other 2LGBTQQAI+ students in schools, and questioned whether Mr. Neufeld should remain a school board trustee.
A central question under the anti-SLAPP legislation, and which the Supreme Court had to consider, was whether the public interest in continuing Mr. Neufeld's defamation lawsuit outweighed the public interest in protecting Mr. Hansman's expressions. In other words, was Mr. Neufeld's right to sue for alleged defamatory comments more important than Mr. Hansman's right to challenge harmful discourse.
In October of 2022, the Commission argued that the Supreme Court should give significant weight to expressions that advance the interests of equality-seeking groups protected under human rights legislation. We essentially said to the Court that people who speak out in support of equality-seeking groups, or respond to harmful discourse about these groups, should be able to do so without fear of lawsuits aimed at silencing them.
Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that argument. The Court decided that the public interest in protecting Mr. Hansman's speech outweighed the public interest in remedying the reputational harm to Mr. Neufeld. As Justice Karakatsanis explained, “[t]he closer the expression lies to the core values of [freedom of expression], including truth-seeking, participating in political decision-making and diversity in the forms of self-fulfillment and human flourishing, ‘the greater the public interest in protecting it'.”
And, so today we are not only celebrating the successful result in this case; we are celebrating that, in Canada, we can expect more support for expressions in defence of vulnerable groups and protected groups. Because now, everyone in Canada has the legal-tested right to stand up to harmful discourse when it attacks an equality-deserving group. It's a good day for human rights.
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