Todsen v Morse: A win for democratic expression

Qualicum Beach Aerial View
Aerial view of Qualicum Beach. The proposed development is located at the edge of the 200-acre forest depicted at bottom right. Photo credit: Shawn /Flickr, 2007, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In Todsen v. Morse, 2022 BCSC 1341, the British Columbia Supreme Court has affirmed that the Protection of Public Participation Act (PPPA) affords robust protection for citizens advocating for environmental conservation. Passed unanimously by the B.C. Legislature in 2019, this case was the first time the PPPA had been invoked in this context.

The decision arose out of an application by the defendants to dismiss 24 defamation claims made against them by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in May 2021.

After a four-day oral hearing, the Honourable Justice Brongers granted the application.  He held that the statements complained of were either not defamatory, lacked “substantial merit” or could be validly defended as truth or as fair comment. The decision is an important contribution to a growing body of PPPA caselaw that explains the role the PPPA plays in protecting democratic expression in British Columbia.

The case concerned public statements made by the Qualicum Nature Preservation Society (QNPS) and the QNPS’s president, Mr. Ezra Morse, opposing development within the Estate Residential Area in Qualicum Beach, B.C. The project proposed by the plaintiffs required an Official Community Plan (OCP) amendment and zoning upgrade to enable a higher density of housing in what is otherwise designated as “Estate Residential” land use under the OCP.

Ezra Morse
The Qualicum Nature Preservation Society and its president Ezra Morse (photo) are sued for statements they made in relation to a proposed development project in Qualicum Beach, B.C. Photo credit: Ezra Morse.

The Court held that the PPPA “provides for a specific pre-trial procedure designed to summarily dispose of certain kinds of civil claims that could silence political debate on issues of public interest. Such claims are colloquially known as “Strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or “SLAPPs”.

Justice Brongers granted the application to dismiss the lawsuit, concluding that “the Todsen’s claim [was] in the nature of a type of SLAPP proceeding that the Act prohibits”.

Tollefson Law were counsel for the defendant Ezra Morse and are regularly consulted by clients and other law firms in SLAPP cases.

Commentary on his decision can be found in The Narwhal, The Tyee, and The Vancouver Sun.

An overview of SLAPP law in Canada can be found here: link.