John Furlong wins court battle against journalist Laura Robinson
B.C. Supreme Court judge dismisses defamation claim against former Vancouver Olympics CEO
Former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong has won his court battle against a journalist who wrote a damning story about his past as a teacher at a native school in Burns Lake, B.C.
In a 97-page decision, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge dismissed Laura Robinson's claim of defamation over statements Furlong made in response to a 2012 story she wrote for Georgia Straight about his past.
The journalist claimed Furlong had implied she was unprofessional and driven by a personal vendetta in public statements made following the publication of articles claiming he physically abused students as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Character under attack
But Wedge determined Furlong was entitled to respond the way he did because his "character, conduct and credibility" were under attack.
That gave him a qualified privilege to make statements that might otherwise meet the legal definition of defamation.
The judge said Robinson's articles couldn't be characterized as simply "the reporting of other persons' allegations against" Furlong.
"This argument overlooks the fact that the former students of Mr. Furlong did not come forward of their own accord," Wedge wrote.
"Ms. Robinson initiated the investigation and set its parameters, solicited the statements after telegraphing the purpose of her investigation, and then published the contents of the statements in her articles for her own purposes."
The ruling wraps a long legal battle that began with Furlong suing Robinson in the weeks after the article first appeared. He ultimately dropped his suit after winning a series of civil suits launched by former students.
But Robinson continued with her defamation claim.
'I knew the truth would prevail'
Furlong said he was pleased with Wedge's verdict.
"In my heart, from the day this nightmare started, I knew truth would prevail. Now it has," he said in a written statement.
"What happened to me should not happen to anyone. I'm relieved this nightmare is over and that my family, friends — and others in difficulty — can see in a matter such as this it is possible to prevail and survive."
Robinson said she was still reviewing the decision.
"What I will say is that I fought this case through trial because I believe that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are vital to an open and democratic society," she said in a written statement.
"That three-year battle has taken a great toll physically, emotionally and financially, but my principles still stand."
Wedge was careful at the outset of her ruling to counter arguments that a ruling for Furlong would be a ruling against freedom of the press.
"This is not a case concerning the right of a journalist to publish information about matters of public interest, or the defences that ought to be available to a journalist who does so," she wrote.
"This case concerns a journalist who wrote about a well-known citizen and criminal acts of child abuse he is alleged to have committed some 40 years ago. The citizen responded to those allegations in strong terms."
No 'sliding scale'
Over the course of the two-week trial, Robinson detailed steps she took to investigate claims Furlong had allegedly verbally and physically abused children.
She obtained eight sworn affidavits from former students after sending out a flyer saying she wanted to meet people who knew Furlong when he was in Burns Lake in 1969.
Thirty-five people were waiting at the band office when Robinson arrived.
In coming to her decision, Wedge accepted the opinion of one of Furlong's expert witnesses, a University of British Columbia psychology professor, who said it is possible her witnesses might have contaminated each other.
"I do not accept that there is a sliding scale by which a journalist is held to a lesser standard than any other person who undertakes to investigate historical child abuses," Wedge wrote.
"The greatest care should have been taken to ensure that the stories were completely spontaneous and not influenced in any way by the interviewer."
Three people sued Furlong in the wake of the article, claiming to have been sexually abused former students. One later withdrew her claim and two others were dismissed after the claimants were proven not to have attended the school where Furlong worked.
Furlong has denied the allegations since they were first made.