U of T’s community radio station, CIUT 89.5 FM, has been caught in the crosshairs of a dispute involving organizers from two major labour unions in Toronto: Unifor and Unite Here. Lisabeth Pimentel, former President of Unite Here Local 75 and current organizer at Unifor Local 7575, is suing CIUT for allegedly allowing defamatory content about her to be aired on its radio shows.
CIUT is one of many defendants in a case that started as an internal conflict within Unite Here Local 75, which has now escalated into a multi-party defamation lawsuit with $500,000 in damages on the line.
Unite Here and Unifor both represent workers in a variety of industries, including hospitality, airport industries, and manufacturing.
The case stems from Pimentel’s claims that a number of her former colleagues at Unite Here made comments on air alleging that her leadership was plagued with “racism, discrimination, harassment and bullying.”
According to the court filings, the majority of the alleged defamatory comments were made on social media, including Facebook and Twitter. However, a few of the statements identified in the statement of claim, which commenced the lawsuit, were made as a part of interviews broadcasted by CIUT and posted on the internet as podcasts.
The lawsuit claims that on January 30, 2018, a U of T graduate and member of Unite Here was a guest on CIUT radio show WeAreUofT, during which she spoke about how she was assaulted by another staff member. The claim also alleges that this guest claimed on the air that Pimentel informed the assailant that the guest was accusing him of assault, putting her “into an even more vulnerable position.”
The claim further states that the guest further remarked on air that Pimentel “was going to such lows to dismiss the voices… of racialized people who had built the union. To not have to listen to them, to not have to listen to them question her leadership. That is how far she was willing to go.”
Rik Hockley, former member of the executive board of Unite Here Local 75, was also a guest on The Taylor Report, a CIUT radio show. The lawsuit claims that on February 21, 2018, Hockley alleged that there was a racial divide between white people and people of colour within the office and that some of the rank-and-file organizers were “being treated like criminals.”
Because these allegedly defamatory comments were broadcasted by CIUT on its radio programs, Pimentel is also seeking damages from the station.
“I filed this lawsuit because facts matter,” wrote Pimentel in an email to The Varsity. “The allegations that CIUT published are false.”
“There is a dispute about the takeover of a Canadian local union of hospitality workers by its US-based parent union. Instead of addressing the merits of this dispute, the supporters of the US parent union turned this into an unwarranted personal attack on me, and CIUT allowed itself to be used as their pawn,” wrote Pimentel.
She added that the case can end much more quickly if CIUT would “apologize and admit that… it failed in the most elementary of journalistic ethics by failing to contact me before it participated in an attack on my integrity.”
Pimentel also added that her lawyers have been in contact with CIUT’s lawyers since the lawsuit was filed.
The defendants’ responses
In the months following Pimentel’s lawsuit, the defendants hired lawyers themselves and announced their intentions to defend.
All of the defendants except for CIUT were represented by the same law firm, Cavalluzzo LLP, and filed a joint statement of defence in which they asked that the “action be dismissed with costs.”
The statement of defence included background allegations of what the defendants called the “chaos, dysfunction and bitter internal conflict” within Unite Here during Pimentel’s tenure.
The defendants claim that no defamation had occured on the grounds that some of what Pimentel claimed never happened. In addition, the statement of defence claims that Pimentel had harmed her own reputation through her actions, and that they were allowed to say what they did because of qualified privilege.
Qualified privilege is one of the defences for defamation in the Canadian judicial system and can be used in cases where a person has a legal or moral duty to give a defamatory statement because it is in the public interest. A statement protected by qualified privilege cannot be made with malicious intent.
The defendants claim that “they had a duty and an interest in communicating their respective views on the internal conflict.”
CIUT has likewise engaged lawyers and announced their intention to defend.
According to Brett Caraway, a UTM Assistant Professor teaching internet law, Pimentel may have a good chance of winning her case against CIUT. “In Canada, and in Ontario specifically, the need to protect the reputation of individuals actually gets more weight than freedom of expression,” Caraway told The Varsity.
Inferences aligned with this can be found in both the Ontario Libel and Slander Act as well as in case law. In the 1995 case of Hill v Church of Scientology of Toronto, the Supreme Court of Canada decided to reject the American “actual malice” standard from precedence that gives more protection to broadcasters from being sued for defamation. Actual malice establishes whether broadcasters knowingly or with negligent disregard publish something that was untrue and defamatory; it also places the burden of providing this proof on the plaintiff.
Caraway also pointed to the fact that radio programs are treated as traditional broadcasters with a publishing role in the eyes of the law. According to Caraway, radio programs have the ability to edit their content in some capacities, and by way of actively engaging and interviewing people, radio shows have a degree of control over what they disseminate.
This set of conditions — Ontario’s tough defamation laws and the classification of radio shows as broadcasters — is why Caraway believes that Pimentel could have a strong case.
Defamation lawsuits have been on the rise since the advent of the internet. Some attribute this to a lack of public understanding that social media users are legally liable for their posts and comments.
Even though Caraway said that he does not “want to live in a world where people are scared to call racism out.” He warned that “if you’re going to [call out racism or prejudicial behaviour], I wouldn’t be flippant about it. And I would definitely take into consideration that you may end up in a courtroom.”
The Varsity has reached out to the guest who appeared on the January 30 show and Hockley for comment, but has been unable to secure a response. CIUT declined to comment.
Disclosure: The Varsity has previously engaged the services of Cavaluzzo LLP.
Editor’s Note (September 10): The online version of this article has been updated to protect the identity of the guest who appeared on WeAreUofT’s January 30 show. The guest appeared on the show anonymously — a recognized practice for sources discussing their personal experiences with assault. While the guest’s name is included in the court filings and is a matter of public record, The Varsity respects the importance of protecting the identity of those who come forward with allegations of assault.