$290 million lawsuit against Freedom Convoy participants designed to silence expression

Lawyers on behalf of Chris Barber, Tamara Lich, and other Freedom Convoy participants argue that the $290 million class action against them is designed to silence their expression–expression the public had an interest in hearing [Image by Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images]

OTTAWA, ON: The Justice Centre announces that lawyers representing Tamara Lich, Chris Barber and other defendants against a class-action lawsuit brought by Zexi Li and other Ottawa residents will be in court this Thursday, December 14, 2023. Tamara Lich and the other defendants have filed an application to dismiss Zexi Li’s $290 million class action as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP)–a lawsuit designed to silence the expression of peaceful protesters.

In February 2022, Ottawa residents Zexi Li and Geoffrey Delaney, Happy Goat Coffee Company, and a local union commenced a $290 million class-action lawsuit against Chris Barber, Tamara Lich, and other Freedom Convoy participants, seeking damages against peaceful protesters for allegedly causing a nuisance. This lawsuit also seeks damages from citizens who donated to the peaceful protest.

Anti-SLAPP legislation serves to protect defendants against “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPP)–lawsuits designed to silence a defendant’s freedom of expression through threats of damages or costs. Anti-SLAPP motions are designed to end such lawsuits and are available to a defendant in any proceeding against them. Once an anti-SLAPP motion has been filed, the defendant must demonstrate that the proceeding against them arises from their expression that “relates to a matter of public interest.” If the defendant can demonstrate that their expression does relate to a matter of public interest, the plaintiff must then demonstrate that their lawsuit has “substantial merit” and that the defendant has no valid defence. A judge must then weigh the importance of the expression at stake against the importance of the plaintiff’s allegations of harm.

Lawyers in the Justice Centre network argue that the proceedings against Tamara Lich, Chris Barber and others do, in fact, arise from their expression. Donating to and participating in the Freedom Convoy amounted to an expression of support for the protest, and of disagreement with the Government of Canada’s response to Covid–matters of public interest. Further, lawyers argue that Zexi Li’s class-action lawsuit contains factual and legal weaknesses; it is not obvious that the proceeding against the defendants has “substantial merit.” Finally, lawyers argue that the defendants do have valid defences and that the value of the expression at issue outweighs the allegations of nuisance against them.

On Thursday, December 14, 2023, the parties will proceed to oral argument at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, arguing that the plaintiffs’ entire class-action lawsuit is, in fact, a SLAPP action disguised as a nuisance claim and that the lawsuit is merely intended to punish the defendants for participating in the 2022 Freedom Convoy protest. If successful, all or part of the class-action lawsuit will be dismissed.

Lawyer James Manson stated, “Zexi Li’s lawsuit engages the very purpose that ‘anti-SLAPP’ legislation was designed to address: an attempt to silence peaceful expression, and the right of defendants to participate in public debate.”

John Carpay, President of the Justice Centre, stated “The fundamental Charter freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly must be vigorously protected and defended, whether they are attacked directly by government or indirectly through a misguided civil action.”

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