Pitt Meadows mayor launches defamation lawsuit

Includes author and three administrators of a Facebook page

Corinne O’Handley speaks to a crowd at the Residents Rising rally against the Golden Ears Business Park expansion. (THE NEWS files)

Corinne O’Handley speaks to a crowd at the Residents Rising rally against the Golden Ears Business Park expansion. (THE NEWS files)

Pitt Meadows Mayor John Becker has launched a defamation lawsuit over a comment in social media he considered libelous.

Becker, who also has a law practice in Pitt Meadows, is suing city resident Gianni Mazzei for an alleged comment on the Facebook page Residents United – Golden Ears Business Park Expansion. Also named in the suit are three people named as administrators of that page, Corinne O’Handley, Jennifer Scharf and Megan Mercier.

The Facebook group page has almost 1,200 members, with posts frequently expressing opinions about Onni’s warehouse development in South Bonson.

The notice of civil claim was filed on July 18, and according to it, the three alleged administrators of the site failed to remove the Mazzei post, and “they are each therefore, in fact and law, each joint publishers of the Mazzei post …”

Becker’s claim says the Mazzei post has been accessed, downloaded and read by many persons in B.C., including members of the Residents United Facebook group and Mazzei’s Facebook friends.

“As a further result of the Mazzei Post, and all repetitions, republications and broadcasts of it, the plaintiff has been injured in his feelings, in his personal and professional character and reputation, and in his offices, professions, callings, trades or businesses,” states the claim. “The plaintiff has also suffered personal embarrassment and humiliation and fear of violence and/or property damage directed towards him and his family.”

The claims further states, the “malicious conduct of the defendants … displays a wanton and flagrant disregard for the plaintiff’s rights. Such conduct warrants an award of punitive and aggravated damages to ensure that the defendants … are appropriately punished for their conduct and be deterred from such conduct.”

In his defence filing, Mazzei acknowledges he made the statement, but denies it is defamatory.

“The alleged defamations were made in the context of a group of neighbours on the Residents United site speculating as to why the plaintiff and the Pitt Meadows counsel [sic] would persist in driving such an unpopular issue,” says the document.

Mazzei relies on the defence of fair comment, and his response says it was “easily recognizable as a comment as it was posted on a Facebook page specifically to allow free and open exchange of ideas, and the language could only lead a reasonable person to conclude it was a comment.”

The defence response indicates Mazzei was not approached to remove the alleged defamation, and that it was read by a small number of people in a closed group, and not disseminated outside the group. It was visible for a period of about 20 days, he says in the statement.

His response quotes case law: “An individual’s reputation is not to be treated as a regrettable but unavoidable roadkill on the highway of public controversy, but nor should an overly solicitous regard for personal reputation be permitted to chill freewheeling debate on matters of public interest.”

In their response, administrators O’Handley, Scharf and Mercier say their inaction is insufficient grounds to support a claim of defamation.

“The within action is a strategic lawsuit against public participation intended to chill the exercise of free speech in opposition of the expansion.”

They “exert no substantial control over the contents of Residents United posts and none of them read all individual posts on Residents United.”

“As a matter of practice, the administrator defendants do not monitor every post that is made on the Residents United group, but they will remove posts that contain objectionable material if those posts are brought to their attention.”

The response also says when the alleged post was written, city council had voted to advance the approval process for business park expansion. As a result the Residents United group had an unusually high number of posts on that night.

Once aware of the post, the administrators removed it, and they did not share or distribute it.

The response also says Becker has “taken extraordinary steps to prevent opposing political viewpoints on the expansion from being disseminated,” and uses examples of Becker removing dissenting citizens from public hearings, “threatening legal action for defamation in local papers,” and other actions.

The suit has been filed in Supreme Court in Vancouver, but no hearing date is set.

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