On Thursday, February 21st, I sat in court next to comedian and talk show host Mike Bullard while Rogers Media argued that they, a major media corporation, were being “silenced” by a man who had been unemployed for two years, still broken, and still grieving the death of his mother.
Full disclosure: I attended this hearing having read all the transcripts from Bullard’s criminal trial and conducting multiple interviews with Mike Bullard to hear his side of the story. That is the side of the story that Rogers seems to be saying has no public interest value. I disagree.
Bullard filed a defamation suit against Rogers for an article published on June 13, 2018 entitled “‘He was like two different people’: Cynthia Mulligan on Mike Bullard’s Harassment and Guilty Plea.”
Using anti-SLAPP legislation available in Ontario, Rogers’ lawyer Andrew Bernstein said they were not the “rich and powerful” in this case because the media is struggling right now and they (Rogers Media) are not as rich as they seem. At the same time, Rogers argued that Mike Bullard, or anyone like him who was broke and unemployed, couldn’t be financially harmed by defamation so Bullard has no legal claim.
For the general public, Rogers seemed to be making a statement that if you’re already down and out and have no money to your name then the media can defame you as much as they want because you can’t prove damages. As the judge said, “rich and powerful is not on the plaintiff’s side of the fence” in this case.
It’s hard to see Rogers’ argument as anything other than insisting that only a wealthy person can sue for defamation. There is some truth that the cost of civil litigation usually makes it inaccessible to the poor. In fact, right off the start the judge noted that this seems to be the “reverse” of power dynamics for what the anti-SLAPP legislation was intended.
Rogers’ lawyers said that even if Bullard was defamed, his financial loss would be so small that their freedom of expression is more valuable than Mike Bullard’s reputation.
The #MeToo movement was mentioned as a new area of public interest which, Rogers argued, justifies telling only one side of the story: that of the alleged victim. Evidence was produced that Sarah Boesveld, the author of the article, spoke with Cynthia Mulligan (Bullard’s ex-girlfriend) about how, as reporters, they both knew there were two sides to every story but the public interest required “weighting” the story by excluding Bullard’s version of events.
Boesveld and Mulligan seem to have agreed that the public doesn’t need to hear Bullard’s side of the story and that is why he wasn’t given a chance to comment. They also seem to have decided that no one else should let Bullard speak either.
When it came to the issue of malice, Rogers struggled to explain messages sent from Boesveld to another member of the media, “Toronto Mike,” warning him away from letting Bullard appear on his podcast. Boesveld had sent two direct messages on Twitter saying “Are you really gonna have Mike Bullard on your show?” and “(I mean I think it’s bullshit that anyone would threaten you for doing so, just to be clear).”
Rogers’ lawyers argued that the exchange didn’t mean she was telling the podcaster not to host Bullard, she just said he can do what he wants. The judge didn’t seem to buy that explanation.
Boesveld also said in cross-examination that she felt Bullard should “go away” and Rogers’ lawyers argued that exchange shouldn’t imply that the article or the author intended to interfere with Bullard’s employment opportunities.
Bullard had pled guilty to sending harassing telecommunications to Cynthia Mulligan on June 8, 2018 after a judge threw out charges of criminal harassment a week earlier. The stalking charges were dismissed after the preliminary hearing on the basis that there was no objective reason for Mulligan to have been afraid of any messages she was sent.
Rogers media disputes that they misrepresented the findings of the court in their article saying they were only reporting on Mulligan’s opinions of the legal system in general, not on any specific legal decision. They have thus far failed to explain why Bullard’s name was in the title of the article if it wasn’t actually an article about him.
What is the public interest in receiving biased information without any attempt to verify facts or investigate their subject? When reporters claim they don’t have to accurately report what happened in court how can they command any respect? Rogers Media submits that the #MeToo movement has changed the public interest and the public wants to hear subjective feelings of women whether or not they are rational, reasonable, or based in fact.
The hearing was supposed to be finished in one day but concluded without Bullard’s lawyer being able to start his side of the argument. Rogers Media lawyers failed to complete their submissions in the allotted time frame so the motion will resume hearings on March 6, 2019.