Judge tosses $30M defamation lawsuit against city councillors and Catholic board trustees

A $30-million defamation lawsuit against two Toronto city councilors and several Catholic school board trustees over an LGBTQ2S+ service for students has been quashed in Ontario Superior Court.

Joseph Volpe, publisher of Corriere Canadese, an Italian-Canadian newspaper, sued former city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam and Coun. Paul Ainslie after they persuaded council to stop advertising in the newspaper, on the grounds it had published articles they described as “homophobic and transphobic.”

Volpe’s lawsuit also named Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees Maria Rizzo, Ida Li Preti, Norman Di Pasquale and Markus de Domenico.

The dispute centered around a link on the TCDSB website to LGBT Youthline, which provided further links to resources, peer support and referrals.

According to the judgment, Wong-Tam put forward the council motion after a series of articles in the paper describing trustees who supported the Youthline link as: “virtue-signaling thugs,” a “rat pack,” “terrorists” and “buffoons, ” and the website itself as “pornographic” and “smut.”

Volpe sued following several tweets published by Wong-Tam and a virtual YouTube press conference by Wong-Tam, Ainslie, Rizzo and Di Pasquale held March 9, 2021, also in support of the motion.

“During the course of the comments, the councilor and trustee defendants stated their view that Volpe and Corriere were homophobic, transphobic, and anti-LGBTQ2S+,” according to the judgment.

Some of the articles were written by Volpe and others by newspaper staff, according to Volpe’s lawyer, Paul Slansky.

While Justice Benjamin Glustein ruled that Volpe’s claim of defamation had “substantial merit,” he also found that the comments were related to a matter of public interest; that there was no evidence of malice, and that the councilors were acting in good faith in the course of their duties.

The judge ruled that the lawsuit amounted to an attempt to prevent public officials from speaking out on a matter of public interest, also known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

In a statement to the Star, Wong-Tam said that she was pleased with the ruling.

“(SLAPPs) are lawsuits used by wealthy corporations and individuals to silence public critics — forcing them into expensive legal battles until they cease their objections and criticism,” Wong-Tam said.

“This ruling is a definite vindication of the anti-SLAPP legislation and a justification of my fair and reasonable comments.”

Slansky said an appeal has been filed.

In the appeal, Slansky argues that while the Corriere Canadese articles criticized trustees for undermining the Roman Catholic faith, they did not attack LGBTQ+ rights, people or communities.

Rather, the criticism focused on the fact that the website, available to be viewed by students in elementary school as well as teenagers, provided links to other sites, which included sexually explicit materials.

“No recognition was made that the criticism by (Corriere Canadese) and Volpe was focused on sexual content or that it was not based on any LGBTQ+ issues,” according to the appeal documents.

The appeal has been filed on the grounds that the judge failed to address constitutional issues raised by the suit and misstated the evidence in his judgment, among other issues.

“Justice Glustein’s ruling is very well-written and difficult to refute on legal grounds,” said Wong-Tam. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the appeal will be dismissed.”

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF


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