There is a legal drama currently unfolding in Vancouver with potentially broad ramifications.
A former university professor, accused of sexual assault and harassment by a student, has sued for defamation against that ex-student and two dozen others who had “recklessly repeated” the allegations, which he has denied, claiming they damaged his personal and professional reputation.
You’ve probably heard of the professor: Steven Galloway, the UBC creative writing head whose case sparked the ‘UBC Accountable’ controversy after literary stars like Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden came to his defence.
But you might not have heard of this new legal chapter. That’s because the media is barely covering it.
Last week, the court began a hearing on a critical question: whether the professor’s lawsuit runs afoul of legislation meant to prevent people speaking out on matters of public interest from being sued into silence.
The only outlet to run a story on the hearing has been the Toronto Star, which published a 1,300-word story last Thursday by Vancouver-based reporter Douglas Quan.
No other outlets have so far followed suit, neither local nor national media.
“It’s worrisome that there isn’t more coverage, because this case could have implications for all of us,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, associate professor of media studies at the University of Western Ontario.
The BC law, passed in 2019, is intended to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPPs.
According to Lisa Taylor, an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson with a background as a lawyer, the outcome of this hearing will likely face appeals before it sets any kind of legal precedent. But its effect will still be felt.
“It’s going to certainly feel precedent-setting one way or the other, because it’s going to send a clear message to sexual assault complainants about whether or not they should talk to anyone, ever.”
(Taylor previously contributed to a crowdfunding campaign for the legal fees of some of the defendents in this case: “The contribution is not my indictment of Galloway per se, it’s just my indictment of a system that always finds another way to silence the voices of sexual assault complainants.”)
The lack of coverage is a sea change in the Galloway case. What was from the beginning a newsworthy story — a feted Canadian author accused in 2015 of sexual misconduct, then fired in 2016 as the chair of a university’s prestigious creative writing program — went supernova when a cadre of Canadian literati—including celebrities like Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, Yann Martel, and Michael Ondaatje — wrote an open letter decrying what they saw as a lack of justice for the accused professor.
International coverage followed, as did a fierce war in CanLit fought over many of the same battlegrounds as the #metoo movement that would emerge the following year.
Galloway launched his defamation suit in 2018, which rekindled the controversy over who was the real victim and the meaning of justice and fairness.
All of this was covered extensively in the national and local Vancouver press. But the last development that received significant coverage was in August 2020, when the Supreme Court of Canada declined to review a disclosure ruling in the case.
Sean Holman, a media expert at Mount Royal University, offered some theories on the lack of coverage, such as the complexities of the case, or the overstretching of limited newsroom resources.
But he agreed with Taylor and Smith Fullerton that the hearing deserves proper reporting.
“This is an important case,” said Holman. “It touches on fundamental issues that we have been talking about as a society ever since the #MeToo movement broke into mainstream consciousness.”
Smith Fullerton suggested business decisions might have played a role.
“The vast majority of our media is commercial. They want stories that are going to sell, that are going to generate likes and clicks and retweets, and this story isn’t one of those stories.”
The outcome of the anti-SLAPP hearing isn’t the only newsworthy aspect. The unredacted report of the UBC investigation into the allegations — known as the Boyd report after its author, former BC Supreme Court justice Mary Ellen Boyd — was entered into evidence.
This is a big deal. The redactions, which were to remove the information the university believed would have infringed on Galloway’s privacy, obscured key points of the report, including Boyd’s evaluation of sexual harassment allegations, and her concluding summary. Even the main complainant in the case, known as A.B. due to a publication ban protecting her identity, did not receive a full copy.
Galloway and his supporters have consistently described Boyd’s findings as dismissing the allegations and thus essentially exonerating him. But as Quan reported:
Lawyers for AB also told the court the independent investigator never used the words “not substantiated” or “unsubstantiated” in reference to the sexual assault allegations. “Ms. Boyd’s words were that ‘on a balance of probabilities’ she was ‘unable to find’ that the sexual assaults ‘occurred,’” their written submissions state, adding that Boyd did find AB’s allegations of sexual harassment to be credible.
This appears to be a very different characterization of the report’s findings than what the public had previously heard — not only from Galloway, but from reporting on the case.
In a 2016 story for The Walrus, Kerry Gold wrote that Galloway had been “largely exonerated” by the report, and that “Boyd threw out nearly every allegation.” Gold added that the “contents” of the report had been “made available” to her.
The UBC Accountable letter referenced Gold’s access and reporting, as well as a statement from the UBC Faculty Association, in asserting that all but one of the allegations, “including the most serious one,” were found to be unsubstantiated.
In July 2018, the National Post published a lengthy essay by Galloway which reiterated this framing of the report’s conclusions.
Notably, a few months later, a Globe and Mail column by Gary Mason required a correction:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that [Boyd] “effectively dismissed all of the contentions.” In fact, the main complainant’s copy of the report states that the investigator accepted the main complainant’s “allegations that [Mr. Galloway] made increasingly inappropriate sexual comments and advances towards her over a number of months in late 2010 and early 2011.” Key portions of the report the main complainant received were blacked out, in particular the conclusions related to sexual harassment.
“There’s deeply problematic interpretations of the Boyd report in Galloway’s first-person account, and the Post does have an obligation, I would say, to correct the record,” said Taylor.
Holman agreed that outlets should revisit their reporting choices in this case, but said that should be a more regular exercise of Canadian journalism.
“We should welcome the opportunity to be more self-reflective about our past coverage,” he said.
“That will make us better in the future, and it will also create more trust between journalists and our audiences.”
The anti-SLAPP hearing continues today, and will resume in June for a final three days, with a judgement expected sometime in the fall. Taylor hopes more media outlets will explain what it means for readers and viewers.
“I think its newsworthiness is probably being underestimated,” she said. “Part of the misperception here is that this relates specifically to sexual assault, and it doesn’t. It relates to any individual’s desire to have a voice and speak against an entity that is more powerful than them.”
“There is an incredibly important learning opportunity for the public here right now that is being missed.”
Photo: Adpated from Dan Harasymchuk, CC BY-SA 4.0