Vanessa Warren and Monte Dennis didn’t set out to become community activists – she’s a farmer, he’s retired. But when they saw landfilling activity happening at an airpark in rural Burlington, they stepped up on behalf of the entire community. They asked the city to enforce its site alteration bylaw, which regulates the content of fill, height, slope, placement and other matters.
The city did try to enforce our bylaw, but the airpark took us to court. The courts upheld our right to enforce our bylaw; an appeal court agreed; and a third court heard recently heard the case. We are waiting for the judge’s ruling.
In the meantime, Vanessa and Monte were hit with a libel suit for speaking out. Monte was sued for a letter to the editor in the Hamilton Spectator in response to an editorial by representatives from the airpark. Vanessa was sued for Tweeting a link to that editorial, and for an article posted on the RBGC website.
Their comments were well within public discussion and quoted extensively from public documents. As Vanessa has said: “No one expects they will win in court, but even if we win, we lose, because we’ve spent, potentially at that point, hundreds of thousands of dollars defending ourselves against something that doesn’t exist.”
Vanessa and Monte began working with others to lobby the province for legislation to protect residents against SLAAP suits – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. These SLAAP suits are aimed at silencing debate, tying residents up in court and costing them thousands. These cases, when they do get to court, are often withdrawn or dismissed. But in the meantime, residents have spent thousands to reach that point. Lives have been ruined, just for exercising the right to free speech.
This fall the province did pass anti-SLAAP legislation – Bill 52 – which gets SLAAP suits before a judge quickly to determine if they have merit – thereby saving all parties thousands in legal costs. Vanessa and Monte fought for this legislation on behalf of other community members, but it won’t help them, because they were sued before it passed.
Their case drags on while legal bills mount. It is not unusual for libel cases to cost $100,000; some have run to over $1 million.
Residents like Vanessa and Monte take up the cause for all of us, and our lives are better because of their efforts. We need to help them.
Watch this SLAAP suit video, and show your support for free speech by donating what you can to help with their legal costs.
To date, they have raised $4,585 toward their goal of $100,000. Help Monte and Vanessa reach their goal!