An Ontario Superior Court judge has thrown out a $30-million defamation suit accusing several local Toronto politicians, journalists and media outlets of labelling the owner and publisher of an Italian-language newspaper homophobic, transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+.
The suit was filed in April of 2021 by Joseph Volpe, the publisher of Corriere Canadese, and M.T.E.C. Consultants, which owns the newspaper. Volpe was a Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence from 1988 to 2011 and served in two cabinet posts in the government of Paul Martin.
The suit named two Toronto city councillors, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Paul Ainslie. Four Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) trustees, journalists Elizabeth Di Filippo and Enzo DiMatteo, as well as Yahoo Media Group, Freshdaily and Media Central Corporation, were also named.
Justice Benjamin Glustein found that some statements made by the politicians were defamatory and that they did lower the reputation of the plaintiffs. But he said there was “no evidence that either the councillors or the trustees were motivated by malice.”
The lawsuit was “an attempt by the plaintiffs to chill the speech of elected officials who choose to speak up,” Glustein wrote in his decision.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs said Glustein erred in his ruling and his clients will appeal it.
Councillor’s motion sparked suit
The plaintiffs brought the suit against Wong-Tam after she filed a motion at city council in early 2021 labelling several articles in Corriere Canadese “homophobic and transphobic,” and spoke about it at a news conference. The motion directed staff to tell the plaintiffs to sign and comply with the Toronto’s Human Rights and Anti-Harassment/Discrimination policies or the city wouldn’t buy ads in the newspaper.
Ainslie was named in the suit because he seconded the motion and TCDSB trustees Maria Rizzo, Norm Di Pasquale, Markus de Domenico and Ida li Preti were named because they wrote a letter supporting it.
They were reacting to Corriere Canadese articles with headlines such as: “Time to put sexualized virtue-signalling thugs in their place” and “TCDSB website hosts pornographic site defended by trustees,” which mentioned the inclusion of a link to LGBT YouthLine, a website offering resources for LGBTQ youth and peer support, on the TCDSB’s website.
“Somehow [Volpe] has turned around and said that he’s the victim, when the only one that has consistently thrown out attacks has been him through his newspaper,” Wong-Tam, now an MPP, told CBC News.
In his written decision, Glustein said “qualified privilege” protects statements of public officials on “matters of public interest.” The councillors and trustees believed the plaintiffs’ written words to be homophobic and the media outlet regularly received public money through the placement of ads by the city, he wrote.
Glustein said the plaintiffs “used language which they knew would attract criticism of them as homophobic, transphobic, and anti-LGBTQ2S+.” The judge also found the media outlets and journalists named in the suit were reporting on matters in the public interest and the journalists exercised diligence.
Glustein dismissed the case by granting what’s known as an anti-SLAPP motion, meaning he agreed with the defendants that the plaintiffs had filed what’s referred to as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” The Ontario government passed anti-SLAPP legislation in 2015 to prevent plaintiffs from silencing critics by filing expensive and time-consuming lawsuits against them that are without merit.
‘It would have been chilling’
CBC News spoke to three of the defendants in the case, who said they feel vindicated.
“It was my job to specifically stand up and rise up when I needed to, to speak on behalf of the community that we represent, and in this case, I represent one of the largest LGBTQ communities in Canada,” said Wong-Tam.
Rizzo said she had felt stress and anxiety related to the case for the past two years. She said she doesn’t like to think what would have happened if the judge had not ruled in favour of the defendants.
“It would have been chilling … I would have to second guess, third guess and fourth guess myself in a public boardroom about what I said … If [Glustein] had gone the other way, it would have in fact silenced many of us.”
De Domenico said he would not change anything he did.
“We simply sent a letter of support to a city councillor for a motion. So that’s not a very radical thing to do, frankly,” he said.
De Domenico said he believes paying particular attention to protecting marginalized students is within the message of Christ and an important part of his job as a TCDSB trustee.
‘A whole bunch of problems’ with judgment, lawyer says
But Paul Slankey, the lawyer for Volpe and the company that owns Corriere Canadese, told CBC News his clients are appealing the decision.
“There are a whole bunch of problems with this judgment. And we’re hoping that the Court of Appeal will fix this,” he said.
He maintained his clients are not homophobic and the articles were instead “critical of the decisions and positions of some of the Toronto Catholic District School Board Trustees for their positions” that according to his clients, “did not protect or support Roman Catholic doctrine on certain issues.”
He also said constitutional arguments were largely ignored by the judge.
Slankey said anti-SLAPP legislation is now being “turned on its head”. He said in this case it is being used “as a main means of silencing the press, as opposed to what it’s designed to do, which is to prevent lawsuits from being used to silence expression.”