Milton woman recoups legal fees after judge dismisses defamation lawsuit
The lawsuit against Stacey Newman resulted from comments she wrote on Facebook in 2015 alleging intimidation and harassment by Azim Rizvee, who was then a federal Liberal candidate
By JULIEN GIGNAC Toronto Star
A judge has dismissed a defamation suit against a Milton woman, ruling that comments she posted online about a former federal Liberal Party candidate were a matter of public interest.
The suit centred on comments she published in 2015 that took aim at a man named Azim Rizvee, who was then a candidate for Milton, a race which he lost. Stacey Newman, a freelance journalist, described various instances of intimidation, harassment and unwanted non-sexual touching that Rizvee was said to have engaged in during the summer and early fall of 2015.
Rizvee and his spouse, Rabiya Azim, who managed his campaign, allege in their statement of claim that Newman’s writings were malicious and they sued her in March 2016 for $16 million. In an interview with The Star Rizvee said he and his family were the victims of “bullying,” treatment which continued after the election was over.
Newman’s motion used an Ontario law called Protection of Public and Participation Act, which deters frivolous litigation, also known as anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation), attempting to chill speech considered to be a matter of public interest.
In his ruling, Judge Dale Fitzpatrick said it qualified as a matter of public interest because “politics is the classic example of such a topic.”
“It is an obvious statement that free speech is one of the fundamental underpinnings to any democratic, open and tolerant society,” he wrote. “The right to offer commentary free from fear of litigation is especially critical to our election process. The public has a strong interest in its citizens exchanging ideas respecting the merits of a candidate for public office. This weighs in favour of protecting the comments of Ms. Newman made in the context of such a selection.”
Azim, Rizvee’s spouse, said the act, introduced in Ontario in 2015, must be “rewritten.”
“In the anti-SLAPP law, there is still a lot of grey areas,” she said. “It gives a party open licence to say anything about anyone without accountability. The defendant (Newman) had that edge.”
Because Newman’s motion was successful, she recouped $85,000 in legal fees in December.
In a July 2015 Facebook post, Newman refers to Rizvee’s supporters as “henchmen” who tried to stamp out dissenting opinions of him.
“This is not democracy, it is bullying and it is dirty politics,” she wrote.
Newman alleged that Rizvee, despite her protests, touched her back, arm and forced a hug on her while she was addressing the media, hovering, she alleged, to give off the appearance that she supported his campaign.
According to the court decision, she said Rizvee turned violent at a later event.
Newman said “that Mr. Rizvee came towards her at the (Milton candidates’ debate), backing her into a desk and aggressively grabbing her forearm,” it says. “Ms. Newman says she yelled at Mr. Rizvee to let her go.”
In a statement posted on Newman’s website in October 2015, she says that she asked Rizvee and his supporters to leave her alone “many times,” calling his behaviour “borderline criminal and abusive.”
“Your candidate, Azim Rizvee, in the Milton riding has, in my very strong opinion, engaged in the dirtiest political campaign I have ever witnessed,” she wrote. “This candidate, in my opinion, only won the candidacy by perverting the nomination process, and by using intimidation and excess to influence voters.”
In Rizvee’s affidavit, he outlines how his reputation had suffered. He said that Newman’s comments likely cost him the election, as he lost by 2,438 votes and that he had “personally suffered embarrassment and humiliation.” Further, her communication caused fewer homes to be sold by his company. Rizvee is the co-founder of MinMaxx Realty, a real estate business, according to the June 2017 court decision.
Judge Fitzpatrick stated in his decision that there was no valid evidence of harm related to Newman’s communication.
Rizvee was “in the unique position where he (had) made the decision to present himself to be assessed and commented upon respecting his suitability for public office,” he said. “This assessment and public commentary is at the heart of the democratic process. The candidate must know that he will be the subject of criticism as well as support,” adding that there was no evidence of malice before him.
In an interview with the Star, Newman said the case, while difficult and time-consuming, has not discouraged her from airing her grievances in a public forum.
“I’ve been asked by people if I would speak out again, and my answer to that is an emphatic yes,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely imperative that people speak up,” noting that the socio-political climate has changed, referring to the #MeToo movement.
“When somebody is reporting something like this, when they go public, that’s usually a last resort,” she said. “My complaints were being ignored and the harassment was continuing.
“This was never only about me,” she said. “This should never be able to happen to somebody else. I know it’s absolutely frightening to go up against somebody who you perceive as powerful and wealthy, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to continue to do so.”
Newman filed a Peace Bond in November 2015, which was withdrawn, but Rizvee was advised by the Crown to not touch, speak with Newman or “enter her personal space.”
Another claim for “malicious prosecution,” is still active and seeks $1.5 million in damages, said Nicholas Bader, one of Rizvee’s lawyers, adding that a litigation date has yet to be determined.