Toronto

Peel school board files legal action against 'defamatory' Black-advocacy Twitter accounts

The Peel District School Board is asking a judge to order Twitter disclose the identities of people behind Black-advocacy Twitter accounts in order to pursue further legal action. The board says the accounts created a campaign of defamation.

Court documents allege tweets accusing members of racism are false and misleading

The Peel District School Board is asking a judge to order Twitter disclose the identities of people behind Black-advocacy Twitter accounts in order to pursue further legal action. (CBC)

The Peel District School Board (PDSB), its education director, two other high-level members and a trustee intend to take legal action against people behind six Twitter accounts critical of the way racism has been handled within the board. 

But first, they're asking a judge to order Twitter to hand over information including names, phone numbers, home and IP addresses to identify those behind the accounts so they can take legal action against them individually. 

The court application says since January, the accounts have "intentionally perpetrated a campaign of defamation, posting false and misleading statements about the applicants."

The application was filed with the Ontario Superior Court on June 1, one week before a report commissioned by the province's education ministry found board administrators are ill-prepared to deal with anti-Black racism directly affecting students. 

A 'culture' of racism

PDSB trustee Nokha Dakroub says she and other trustees weren't informed of the legal action and calls it concerning and insensitive to the Black community.

"It really exemplifies systemic anti-Black racism," she said. "We have a very large organization going after a few Twitter accounts to stop them from speaking out on issues in the system that have been essentially investigated by the government."

Nokha Dakroub is the PDSB trustee for Wards 9 and 10 in Mississauga. (Supplied/Nokha Dakroub)

Last week, PDSB trustees unanimously voted to request the province appoint a supervisor to oversee the board.

On Monday, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced the appointment of Bruce Rodrigues to supervise the school board.

"The appointment of a supervisor will allow the PDSB to get back on track and undertake the necessary actions to eliminate the practices and policies underpinning discrimination and inequities," Lecce said in a statement.

Lecce also tweeted on Monday afternoon that he has asked the new supervisor to have the board "immediately withdraw from litigation against community members" to start having "meaningful engagement" with people affected.

"We cannot silence community. In fact, we need more community in these moments," he said.

In March, Lecce issued more than two dozen directives to the board following a review that he says found a "deep-seated culture" of racism.

The court application also accuses some of the accounts of leaking confidential information about a letter that was to be written by superintendents to the education minister stating senior PDSB staff were "doing everything" to combat anti-Black racism and implement the directives.

The applicants requesting Twitter disclose the identities behind the accounts are the PDSB, education director Peter Joshua, vice-chair of the board of trustees David Green, associate director of school support services Mark Haarmann. Superintendent of education Gale Solomon-Henry is also included in the initial documentation. But in an email sent to CBC Toronto in the early morning hours Monday, Solomon-Henry says she has withdrawn her name from the application.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Twitter says defending and respecting the voice of people who use the platform is one of the company's core values.

"This value is a two-part commitment to freedom of expression and privacy. We routinely fight to preserve these rights for the people who use our service," the statement states. 

Twitter accusations of racism, misogyny, bullying

The document includes a list of dozens of tweets from six Twitter accounts posted between January and April. 

It alleges the tweets state the listed applicants are racist and encourage and support racism against students, parents and staff.

The tweets also accuse some or all of the members named of being misogynistic, bullying Black students, and attempting to derail efforts to combat anti-Black racism, according to the court document.

One tweet on April 6 by @HomeisPeel reads: 

"So much for DE-colonizing. @quitychatter @davidgreen91 @PDSB_Director have all got colonized minds. Stepping on the necks of black students, community, staff and women of colour. More dangerous than the colonizers themselves." 

Two other accounts, @AdvocacyPeel and @PeelBlackParent, retweeted it.

The other accounts listed in the notice of application are @WeRiseTogether1, @peelblackyouth1 and @MinistryPeel.

The document also states that some tweets say Solomon-Henry and Green, who are both Black, are white supremacists and unsupportive of the social and political interests of Black people.

David Green is the PDSB trustee for Wards 1 and 5 in Brampton and the vice-chair of the board of trustees. (Peel District School Board)

In an emotional interview, Green says the tweets are false and taking an immense toll on himself and his family.

"My life is in shambles because of these tweets," he said.

He says some of the Twitter accounts have launched attacks on other aspects of his life, including a foundation for marginalized youth he's the executive director of.

Green says he's been fighting anti-Black racism all his life and apologized if the legal action hurt anyone in his community.

"'I'm truly sorry for that, but please understand the pain and the hurt these attacks have caused me and my family," he said.

Solomon-Henry says she was "hurt by the various Twitter attacks on my character, reputation and work" and "thus allowed my name to be added to an action against these groups to allow for further investigation into the Twitter attacks."

But pushback from some of those within the Black community in Peel prompted her to consider her participation in the action, she says.

"It was never my intention to hurt my community and I have withdrawn from the lawsuit. I see my community, and I hear you, and as someone who has engaged in equity and anti-Black racism works my entire life I understand it's about the impact," she explains.

"Today, I reconfirm my commitment to the Black community as a member of PDSB senior team and hope for community healing in these difficult times as we move forward collectively."

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing the Twitter account holders called the legal action an intimidation tactic.

"I think it speaks again to the dysfunction, how unhealthy the organization has been run so far," Alex Battick said.

He says it's "tone-deaf" for the board, high-ranking staff and a trustee to go after Black people advocating for racial equality.

"Only after a lot of their advocacy was the school board able to be held accountable," Battick said.

Alex Battick is a lawyer representing those behind the Twitter accounts and calls the legal action an intimidation tactic. (Supplied/Alex Battick)

In a statement, PDSB's education director says the board has a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace.

Peter Joshua says there was concern that the "anonymous attacks on Twitter" and the disclosure of confidential information was hampering them from doing their jobs.

"It is important to note that, after consulting with legal counsel, the PDSB took legal action to protect its personnel from these online attacks, which were not legitimate attempts to engage in any kind of dialogue about the important issues the board is addressing," the statement read.

CBC Toronto reached out to the other applicants named in the document. The board itself and Haarmann referred to Joshua's statement.

It's unclear who ultimately decided on the action, how much it's costing and if public money is being used. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education wouldn't comment, citing it's a legal matter.

The application is set to be considered the week of June 22.

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

With files from Adam Carter

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