Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lawsuits and political debates...

The Toronto Port Authority has sued a local lobby group called “Community Air” for defamation. The Port Authority operates a small container terminal, a marina, and a reliever airport on the Toronto waterfront. “Community Air” has dedicated itself to closing the airport and moving air transport operations, together with the attendant air and noise pollution, to the north-west corner of Toronto.

“Community Air” claims to speak for the whole community, but in fact, they speak for wealthy, articulate, and highly privileged downtown residents. They certainly do not represent the people of Toronto who live near Pearson International Airport. In fact, despite their progressive sounding title, “Community Air” actively promotes environmental injustice.

“Community Air” has a history of making inaccurate claims. In a recent effort to stop a new airline opening at Toronto City Centre Airport, they claimed the airport did not meet appropriate safety standards, and strongly insinuated that the Port Authority had compromised the safety of the traveling public. Most of the claims made by “Community Air” about the safety of the airport have proved either wrong or misleading.

So should the Toronto Port Authority sue or not? That question pits two principles against one another. On one hand, I do not believe that public bodies, or even corporations, should use the courts to influence public debate. On the other hand, any public body that provides a transportation service, such as an airport, depends on skilled professionals, including engineers and managers. For these people, their reputations constitute an important personal asset. If a lobby group has an unlimited license to engage in personal and professional defamation, they can make it difficult, if not impossible for an agency such as the Port Authority to carry out is mandate.

In other words, this lawsuit pits two cherished rights and principles against each other: the right of people to do their jobs and serve the public, free from coercion, against the right of citizens to engage in a free-wheeling debate.

In the long run, the solution to this dilemma lies in two directions: an honest discussion of Toronto’s transportation needs, and the most cost-effective and environmentally fair way to meet them, and an application of simple civility. As long as the debate over transport policy in this city remains driven by local groups contending for nothing more than their own interests, we will continue to have ugly debates. When these debates cross the line and defame people with a serious investment in their reputations, it should surprise nobody when lawsuits result. A healthy public debate, on this topic, depends on the political leaders and the citizens showing some willingness to engage in principled debate.

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