New Brunswick

Ferguson calls for anti-SLAPP legislation

Former Saint John councillor John Ferguson, who was unsuccessfully sued by the city's pension board, says it is time New Brunswick looked at so-called anti-SLAPP legislation.

Ex-Saint John councillor John Ferguson says critics need legal protection

Former Saint John councillor John Ferguson, who was unsuccessfully sued by the city’s pension board, says it is time New Brunswick looked at so-called anti-SLAPP legislation.

SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits are sometimes used by corporations to silence opposition.

Ferguson said he believes the pension board's failed defamation suit against him fits into that category; intended to silence him from criticizing the city’s growing pension problem.

The five-year lawsuit, 12-week jury trial and his $2.5 million legal costs have left him unsure whether he’d be comfortable speaking publicly about contentious issues again, he told CBC News.

"If I didn't have insurance, I would be bankrupt, Ferguson said.

"I wouldn't have been able to defend myself against this type of lawsuit."

Department of Justice officials say no such legislation is currently being contemplated.

On Monday, a Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled the pension board will not have to pay Ferguson’s full solicitor-client costs. A lesser amount will be determined at a hearing on July 11.

Ferguson’s legal bill has been covered by the city’s insurance company because he was a city councillor at the time.

The insurance company now has the option to appeal legal costs to a higher court, which Ferguson believes could open a discussion about anti-SLAPP legislation for New Brunswick.

"Otherwise basically if you have deep enough pockets, or access to deep pockets, you can effectively silence political opposition," he said.

Environmentalist made similar plea

Clean air activist Gordon Dalzell called on the provincial government to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation last year to help protect protesters.

Dalzell said with contentious projects in the province such as shale gas exploration, critics need protection from legal actions designed to intimidate and silence.

At that time, Department of Justice officials said no such legislation was being contemplated.

Former NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir introduced private member's bills at different times in her political career. But neither the Liberal government nor the Progressive Conservative governments of the time allowed the bills to pass.

Quebec introduced anti-SLAPP legislation in 2009. It is currently the only province with such legislation.

The pension board sued Ferguson in 2007 over a series of statements he made as a city councillor about poor management of the city's $400-million pension fund, which was running a deficit of about $45 million.

The shortfall has since ballooned to more than $190 million and resulted in significant funding cuts to city services.

The board claimed on six separate occasions between 2005 and 2006 Ferguson maliciously defamed members of the board in a cynical attempt to gain attention for an eventual run for mayor.

But on May 1, a jury found Ferguson not liable, saying he was well within his rights to criticize management of the city's deficit-plagued pension fund while he was a councillor.