A License to Defame?

A hearing is underway in a Vancouver, British Columbia courtroom that has far-reaching implications for the ability of the wrongly accused to find justice in Canadian civil courts.

Steven Galloway was an internationally-acclaimed author and professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia.  He had a two-year sexual affair with one of his female students, known only as “MC,” who already had a Master’s degree and is five years his senior.

In 2015, four years after the affair was over, a former creative writing student and self-described narcissist named Chelsea Rooney, acting as MC’s mouthpiece, publicly stated that Galloway had violently raped MC and that Rooney knew of 19 other women who would level charges of sexual abuse against him.

The campus witch trial began immediately.  Within one business day, UBC suspended Galloway from his post as professor and relieved him of the chairmanship of his department, apparently the only time in the history of the school that a professor had been disciplined without any investigation.

Galloway never denied the affair with MC, but has always said the sex was consensual, and hundreds of emails from her to him during the affair bear him out.  Still, prior to any investigation, the university sided with his accuser, and faculty, administrators and students joined in the public shaming and demands for Galloway’s dismissal.  Soon, former friends and colleagues at the school took to social media with a dual message – (1) the allegations against him were true and (2) anyone who dared call for caution or even due process was a rape apologist.  The mainstream Canadian press piled on.

Amazingly, UBC then appointed none other than Chelsea Rooney, Galloway’s chief accuser, to solicit, with the imprimatur of the university, others who may have had a grievance against him. In addition to being suspended, at the insistence of unidentified UBC sources, Galloway, in Ohio for a speaking engagement, was arrested by police, strip searched and confined to a psychiatric facility for 72 hours.  For the full horror of what Galloway faced, go here.

None of the allegations against Galloway were ever presented to the police, but eventually UBC decided someone with investigative experience should look into them.  So it hired the former Chief Justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, Mary Ellen Boyd, to do so.  Despite Rooney’s best efforts, she found nothing with which to tar Galloway, but about Rooney said this: “Suffice it to say that I found AC5 [Rooney] a biased witness, who has perceived every minor incident here through her own tainted lens. I am unable to place much, if any, weight on her evidence.”

And what of those 19 other women with accusations against Galloway, so much ballyhooed by Rooney?  There were none.  What Rooney actually produced were herself and seven of her friends, not one of whom even alleged sexual misconduct by Galloway.  For example, one “complainant” had this to say: “I acknowledge that [Galloway] never behaved in a disrespectful manner toward me,” and “I did not feel either threatened, or unsafe, or vulnerable vis-à-vis Galloway.”

Such was the “case” against the star novelist.

But no matter, seven months after Rooney’s original accusations, UBC fired him anyway, citing an undefined “breach of trust.”  In short, a major figure in Canadian literature was cashiered by the university for which he’d worked for over 15 years on the basis of little-to-no evidence and after a process that’s best compared to Kafka’s The Trial.

Unsurprisingly, Galloway sued the university and won damages of over $200,000 Canadian for its injury to his reputation.  But Galloway didn’t stop there.  He’s now sued 24 individual accusers, presumably including Rooney (the defendants are anonymous), professors and others.

The hearing that’s taking place now is part of that lawsuit – by far the most important part.  Why?  Because the judge will rule on 11 defendants’ motion to dismiss Galloway’s suit against them claiming that a 2019 British Columbia law shields them from civil liability in the matter.

They do so despite having publicly accused him of criminal wrongdoing, accusations that were investigated and found to be without merit.  Anywhere else in the English-speaking world, that could give rise to liability for libel, slander and/or defamation of character.

What then is the hearing about?  Why not just proceed to trial and let a judge or jury decide the issues of liability, if any, and damages, if any?

The Protection of Public Participation Act relied on by defendants was intended to discourage SLAPP suits by powerful corporations against individual whistle-blowers, the idea being that, if a matter is in the “public interest,” individuals should have the freedom to discuss it publicly without fear of being litigated to death by large businesses or other entities with far greater resources.  The law promotes free speech by encouraging speaking out without fear of reprisal.  Needless to say, the issues surrounding sexual assault are well within the public interest conceived of by the statute.

But it was never intended to do what the Galloway defendants claim – give a free pass to libel, slander and defamation.  The law is intended to promote public awareness of important issues, not public lying and the destruction of hard-won reputations.  Truth telling is encouraged, lying is not.   But the defendants want to turn the law on its head. They seek a license to lie, to smear.  They want to walk away from their outrageous conduct untouched and free to destroy the reputation of the next person who dares to do something – anything – of which they disapprove.  In short, they seek to wield unprecedented and unaccountable power.  And they seek to let others know that they can too.



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