An Ontario lawyer in the eye of a $1-million libel suit launched by an anti-vaccine nursing group says vexatious lawsuits are increasingly being used as tools by special interest groups looking to silence critics when it comes to medical misinformation.
Paul Champ, a human rights and labour lawyer based in Ottawa, spoke to CBC News about the lawsuit filed last fall by three Ontario nurses.
Kristen Nagle, of London, Kristal Pitter of Tillsonburg and Sarah Choujounian of Toronto have been investigated by the province's nursing regulator for allegedly spreading medical misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media. They're seeking $1 million in damages for "embarrassment and humiliation" over separate online editorials published by the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) and the B.C. media outlet Together News Inc. (TNI).
Champ, the lawyer for Together News Inc., argues that rather than seek legitimate justice, the plaintiffs are attempting to use the court system for an ulterior purpose.
Media outlet, CNA want lawsuit struck down
"[They're] trying to suppress anyone and attack anyone who is disagreeing with them, but they are also trying to use it as a platform to attract attention to their cause and find a forum in which they can try to perpetuate their discredited theories."
Nagle, Pitter and Choujounian are key members of Canadian Frontline Nurses (CFN), a group that campaigns against conventional medical wisdom through rallies and retails alternative health practices and related merchandise.
Champ said the legal action launched by the nurses and CFN is a SLAPP, which stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation, a legal manoeuvre often used by the rich and powerful to intimidate, silence and/or bankrupt opponents.
Both TNI and the CNA have filed motions under Ontario's anti-SLAPP legislation that seek to have the lawsuit struck down on the grounds it's abusive and seeks to stifle free speech, Champ said.
"We're hopeful the court will agree with us on that."
Anti-vax doctors' $12M suit dismissed
A group of journalists and doctors recently used the Ontario law to get a $12 million-lawsuit by a group of anti-vaccine doctors dismissed. They had launched the suit after they were criticized on social media for spreading misinformation about the pandemic.
Champ said special interest groups that peddle medical misinformation are learning that Canada's justice system can't be leveraged to silence critics.
It's inherently unreasonable people, I think. They're resorting to the courts to try to advance their causes. - Paul Champ, lawyer in Ottawa
"It's inherently unreasonable people, I think. They're resorting to the courts to try to advance their causes. I think what we've seen so far and what we'll see in the future is I don't think the courts will be a very hospitable forum for them."
In pleadings filed by the defence, both TNI and the CNA said they stand by their separate editorials that were published online last fall in the wake of anti-mandate protests that erupted outside hospitals across Canada.
The CNA argues it had a duty to make the Sept. 9, 2021, statement, titled "Enough is enough: professional nurses stand for science-based healthcare," in order to express public support for health-care workers who were "harassed, demoralized, threatened, or assaulted" during protests, some organized by CFN.
TNI said its editorial, "Quack! Quack! These pro-virus nurses have dangerous ideas." should be considered fair comment and truth, saying its staff worked "diligently to verify the allegations."
'Why are they picking on my clients?'
Champ said while other outlets have reported on the plaintiffs, TNI appears to be singled out in the lawsuit.
"It's notable that CBC and other major news organizations have put out stories that are very similar to Together News and for whatever reason this group [CFN] doesn't go after those organizations."
"Together News isn't a big organization," he said. "Why are they picking on my clients?"
Alexander Boissonneau-Lehner, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told CBC News in an email he was unable to comment on the case.
"It would be inappropriate for me to comment on either our clients' claims or the defendants' claims which are in the process of being adjudicated with the court," he wrote.
The nurses claim that after the separate articles were published, they suffered "ridicule, hatred and contempt," damage to their personal and professional reputations, as well as "humiliation" and "great emotional anxiety."
All three women have been investigated by the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) for allegedly spreading misinformation about the pandemic, the effectiveness of masks and the COVID-19 vaccine.
All three are entitled to practise in the province without restrictions, according to Ontario's nursing regulator.