Are this strip club's owners trying to sue the London Free Press into silence?
Beef Baron Tavern, Vincent Barletta launch defamation suit vs. Ontario paper, which ‘stands by its reporting'
The owners of a London, Ont., strip club are suing the London Free Press and its parent company, Postmedia, for $5 million in a defamation case that media experts say could be an attempt to silence the newspaper and its coverage.
The Beef Baron Tavern and Vincent Barletta, the club's general manager, launched the lawsuit on April 23, 2021.
Last January, the Free Press published an article with the headline "Police probe Beef Baron fire, fourth suspicious blaze linked to Barletta clan" that reported police were trying to determine whether a fire, which caused $5,000 in damage at the shuttered strip club, may be linked to other recent suspicious fires in the city.
Michael Polvere, the lawyer for Barletta and the Beef Baron, did not return a request for comment via email Wednesday and Friday or via telephone Thursday.
CBC News was also unable to reach the Beef Baron or Barletta.
None of the allegations have been tested or proven in court.
Reporting 'made without malice,' says paper
In its statement of claim, Barletta and the Beef Baron alleges the January 2021 article caused the club to lose business, and unfairly painted Barletta as "racist," "a member of the Ku Klux Klan" and "a vile and abhorrent person."
The documents also accuse the newspaper of having "a history of bias" against the plaintiffs, alleging the Free Press has "unfairly targeted the defendants as a source of criminal activity in the City of London community and southwestern Ontario at large."
The paper's article said Vincent is the brother of alleged Hells Angels member Robert Barletta.
In a statement of defence filed in November 2021, the Free Press counters it had a duty to report on the fires, which were "made without malice" as a matter of public interest to the community, and is asking for the action to be dismissed and that the plaintiffs pay for both parties' legal costs under Ontario's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) legislation.
"This is a pretty good example of what these days we call SLAPP suits," said Sam Trosow, an associate professor at Western University who studies media law, including defamation and its defences.
What is a SLAPP lawsuit?
A SLAPP is a type of court action often used by the rich and powerful to stifle free speech by weaponizing the court system to either intimidate and/or bankrupt opponents into silence through costly litigation. The practice has recently become a new tool for anti-vaxx groups in Canada to silence critics.
It's a very effective way of interfering with public discourse that's essential in a democratic society.- James Turk, Centre for Free Expression at Toronto's Metropolitan University
Trosow reviewed the court filings for both the plaintiffs and the defence at the request of CBC News, and he said it will be difficult to predict how a matter will be litigated before the courts.
"I've not seen anything to my satisfaction if I were judging this that would lead me to believe their reports were false or their reports were malicious," Trosow said.
"I don't think it's going to be successful."
Ontario's anti-SLAPP a powerful tool
Ontario's anti-SLAPP legislation (Ontario Courts of Justice Act, Sec 137.1 to 137.5) is among the best in the world when it comes to protecting free speech, according to James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University.
It was passed in 2015 with the aim of levelling the playing field for those defending against SLAPP actions.
"If I want you to not say what you're saying and silence you, it's a very effective way of interfering with public discourse that's essential in a democratic society."
Turk said there's a potential cost involved in defending such lawsuits that can be upwards of $250,000, and it creates a conflict of interest for media outlets hit with such actions in reporting on the case.
"The case that the London Free Press is in now is complicated in that sense, but fortunately there are other media, like the CBC, that can report on it and let the public in London and across Canada know.
"I feel badly for situations where there is only one media outlet in the community. If it is sued, they can't comment on it and I don't know how the public of that community would learn what's happening, but it's an example of the impact."
'Democracy depends on public discourse'
Quebec, Ontario and B.C. all have anti-SLAPP legislation.
"Ontario comes up very well," Turk said, noting the Centre for Free Expression is conducting research comparing the effectiveness of anti-SLAPP legislation in Canada as well as in the United States and Australia.
"Our democracy depends on public discourse, that ongoing conversation," he said. "We know that those who have wealth or better access can be heard more easily, but nevertheless the public has an interest in ensuring no one is inappropriately silenced when they don't have enough money for a bogus lawsuit."
Doug Richardson, the lawyer for Postmedia, did not return a request for comment. Free Press editor in chief Joe Ruscitti said the newspaper will go to court, if it must.
"The newspaper has filed a defence, stands by its reporting and intends to defend this matter if it proceeds. We do not wish to comment further," he told CBC News in an email Thursday.