||Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006 |
Plaintiffs vindicated despite "systematic campaign of character assassination"
by Nancy Knickerbocker
Nine teachers, a former school trustee, and a parent won a resounding Supreme Court victory over a Comox Valley woman who cruelly defamed them on internet sites, in chat rooms and on voluminous quantities of email.
In reasons for judgment released January 11, 2006, Madam Justice Jacqueline Dorgan states that parent activist Sue Halstead "published the defamatory statements in the context of a prolonged and sustained campaign of character assassination against each of the plaintiffs."
Judge Dorgan wrote: "Ms. Halstead’s shockingly vicious attack upon, and her manifestly fictitious account of, each of the plaintiff’s character and conduct is deserving of rebuke.... Her actions are malicious and cruel. Such publications and actions have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of expression. Ms. Halstead has seriously transgressed the boundaries which prescribe that hallowed right."
The BCTF agreed to take the plaintiffs’ case because years of efforts at discussion and mediation had failed to dissuade Halstead from her continued campaign against them. "We did not take on this litigation lightly," said BCTF President Jinny Sims. "But we felt very strongly that individuals cannot be permitted to spread untruths and rob teachers of the excellent reputations they have earned in their communities."
Halstead, a mother of five, has a long history as a parent volunteer and anti-bullying activist. The self-described president of Parents Against Violence Everywhere and the Comox Valley Learning Disability Association, she was active at the local, district, and provincial levels with the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC). She twice ran unsuccessfully for school board.
"The evidence establishes that since in or about 1997, Ms. Halstead has been highly conflict-driven, waging battles with everyone from PAC parents to teachers, trustees, and the Superintendent of Schools," the judgment states. Her output of "outrageous and scandalous" correspondence and complaints to numerous official bodies was prodigious, and was copied widely to many politicians and officials on the education scene. Halstead wrote innumerable letters to editors of papers across the province, gained spurious credibility from being frequently quoted in the media.
In addition, "Ms. Halstead’s use of the Internet in the publication of defamatory statements was incessant and the reach was broad," the judge wrote. Her web site and chat groups published reams of material and opinion, including "very serious allegations of manifestly improper conduct."
In 2003, Halstead created a website that featured what she called "B.C.’s Least Wanted Educators." She described several of the plaintiffs as "Bully Educators," and placed their names under cartoon-style pictures of apples with worms in them. The judge described it as "a rogue’s gallery" of people Halstead accused of a wide range of misconduct including violence, drunkenness, pot smoking, sexual harassment, and befriending child pornographers. She even likened one plaintiff to convicted pedophile Robert Noyes.
Cumberland teacher Edmund Newman, in particular, bore the brunt of Halstead’s attacks. For example, Halstead referred to Newman as being subject to an RCMP investigation, but didn’t reveal the fact that she herself had launched the complaint. The bogus allegation remained on Halstead’s web site long after the RCMP had informed her that investigations revealed the complaint to be utterly groundless.
Evidence showed that all of the allegations were defamatory and fictitious. "I find that Ms. Halstead is entirely without credibility," Judge Dorgan wrote. She also chastised Halstead for failing to appear in court and simply attempting "to walk away" from the proceedings.
Judge Dorgan awarded the individual plaintiffs a total of $626,000 in compensatory damages and a further $50,000 in punitive damages to be shared amongst the eleven, with costs to the BCTF. The judge acknowledged it may well be difficult to collect the damages, given Halstead’s financial circumstances. In addition, she ordered Halstead to stop writing about any of the plaintiffs, either on the Internet or in any other medium.
Judge Dorgan concluded by praising the plaintiffs and expressing the hope that with the end of the litigation they would be able to move forward in their personal and professional lives. She wrote:
"Each of these remarkable people has displayed strength of character and professionalism throughout; each has exhibited a passion for and a commitment to the education and well being of young people in their communities. Not only students, but the community as a whole, suffers when those involved in education are unfairly and unnecessarily publicly maligned."
Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media relations officer.