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OCLA petitions university to stop financing private lawsuit

Image courtesy of OCLA


THE ONTARIO CIVIL Liberties Association (OCLA) is asking the University of Ottawa to stop funding a private defamation lawsuit filed by professor Joanne St. Lewis against former professor Denis Rancourt.

On his blog U of O Watch, Rancourt made a post about St. Lewis in February 2011, which she deemed libelous. Shortly after, St. Lewis filed a defamation suit against Rancourt and was later financially supported by the U of O with no cap on the cost, according the OCLA.

The OCLA takes public positions on cases that involve civil liberties. In letters addressed to U of O president Allan Rock and common law dean Nathalie Des Rosiers, the association said that to finance a private lawsuit is a misuse of public funds and violates Rancourt’s freedom of expression.

“Our position is that it is completely unfair for one side to have unlimited resources in a court battle,” said OCLA executive director Joseph Hickey. “Courts have recognized that large asymmetries in resources can’t allow a fair fight, and that’s been well established in the thinking of the courts, and in this case, it is not only a fair fight, but it is public money that is being used to skew justice in such a way that it violates an individual’s freedom of expression, and to go a step further and have it be an individual critic of the institution.”

The university declined to comment, but did say that the question of whether or not it is appropriate for the institution to be funding a private lawsuit has already been brought before a judge. Superior Court Justice Robert Smith said the university had a legitimate reason for assisting St. Lewis and explained that there was no evidence to show the university agreed to fund the lawsuit based on any improper motives.

However, Hickey said the OCLA thinks Rock and Des Rosiers “will come to the understanding that funding this case is wrong for the university.”

“Our campaign is based on the understanding that this is a mistake,” he said. “It is contrary to what should happen in a free and democratic society.”

Rancourt maintains that St. Lewis would not have pursued the defamation suit if her legal costs were not covered by the university. Smith dismissed this allegation by pointing out that St. Lewis had already decided to sue Rancourt for defamation before she asked the university to help with legal costs.

Hickey said the OCLA will not make any comments as to the merit of the case itself, but is only concerned with public funds being used to finance a private lawsuit. The OCLA estimates that upwards of $1 million has been put toward the case since it was filed.

—With files from KayCie Gravelle