Municipal government proceedings, including council meetings and other public forums may become venues for heated debate. Ontario law recognizes that reputation is a valuable asset, and statements that impugn the reputation of another person may be considered defamatory under the law.
What is defamation?
Any public dissemination of false statements may be considered defamation if it negatively impacts the business or personal reputation of its target(s). Defamation can be written (libel) or spoken (slander) and may be published in traditional media, such as newspapers or radio, or online and through social media.
The long-term personal and financial costs of defamation can be severe, which is why many victims seek a legal remedy through a civil claim.
Defences to defamation
Generally, a statement will not be considered defamatory if it is true, or where it is an expression of personal opinion rather than an assertion of fact. However, the law of defamation is complex.
Some claims can be defended on the basis that otherwise defamatory comments are protected by some form of privilege. Privilege arises because the law recognises that some forums are of such social importance that expressions made in those forums ought to be protected.
Where comments are protected by absolute privilege, they are immune from an action for defamation regardless of the intent of the speaker, or the nature or effect of the comments.
Absolute privilege has been recognized to exist in parliamentary proceedings – this is why a common retort during question period is to dare another MP to repeat their comments outside of parliament, where absolute privilege would not apply. Absolute privilege for parliamentary proceedings is grounded in public policy considerations that favour freedom of expression in public discourse.
Certain other forums enjoy a qualified privilege that is conditional on the motives and behaviour of the speaker. Where qualified privilege applies, a person can make defamatory and untrue statements without incurring legal liability, so long as the speaker acts honestly, in good faith and without malice.
Privilege and municipal proceedings
Although one might expect that the public policy considerations that provide for absolute privilege for parliamentary proceedings would apply equally to municipal council proceedings, Canadian Courts have long held that words spoken at a municipal council meeting are only protected by qualified privilege. This means that speakers must be wary of their intent, lest they face accusations of defamation.
Waterloo municipal and planning lawyers
At Duncan Linton LLP, our municipal and planning lawyers have decades of experience assisting both public and private actors with all manner of municipal matters, including situations of potential defamation. We offer practical, confidential advice that helps our clients make sound decisions about their legal rights. Contact us online or call 519-886-3340 to make an appointment with one of our lawyers.