Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Thin skins and defamation

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Am I wrong, or are more and more people in politics resorting to defamation lawsuits?In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a letter threatening legal action and asking for an apology from Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, who accused a Harper aide of peddling influence in a dispute between a Montreal real estate company and the federal government.Harper then filed a $2.5-million suit against the Liberals for statements made about allegations the Tories tried to buy the support of dying independent MP Chuck Cadman to win a vote of non-confidence.In New Brunswick, Tory opposition leader Jeanott Volpe has sent a letter of intent to sue the province's health minister, Mike Murphy, for defamation. Murphy accused Volpe of hijacking her own caucus to sustain a fillibuster on a key government bill.Now, we have word from Powell River, B.C., a small Sunshine Coast city, that the mayor has threatened a lawsuit against two citizens who publicly criticized his handling of a contentious plan to borrow $6.5 million to improve the community's harbour. A campaign opposing the harbour project raised concerns about how the city was surveying its residents about whether to borrow the money.As the criticism of the project grew, Mayor Stewart Alsgard sent two citizens letters threatening a defamation suit. The BC Civil Liberties Association has responded by filing a law suit against the city for attempting to chill citizens engaged in legiatimate democratic action by threatening legal actionHaving been the subject of legal threats and lawsuits, it's not a pleasant experience. Anyone who may need to make allegations of a sensitive nature in the commission of their professional duties has come to expect legal threats as part of the normal course of business. But generally, politicians have refrained from suing other politicians, and certainly politicians suing citizens is, while not unprecedented, still rare.Although politicians deserve to be protected from defamatory commentary as much as the next person, the decision to launch a lawsuit is not one to be taken lightly. First and foremost, politicians, especially those in government, have access to virtually limitless resources for legal fees. In many cases, these resources dwarf the resources of the people being sued. The absence of any kind of a level playing field must be considered when expending taxpayer money for this form of political defense.It would be better to enforce some sort of noble rules of engagement in politics that eliminates any possibility of politicians taking liberties with the reputation of other politicians. Unfortunately, if you consider the tenor of debate in Ottawa, that appears to be a somewhat Utopian concept right now.Politicians are often unfairly criticized, but they also have direct access to the media to not only defend themselves but undermine the arguments of their detractors. Let's leave the fight where it belongs, in the court of public opinion.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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