Ex-teacher silenced for book views can proceed with lawsuit against Waterloo region board after court ruling

ex-teacher silenced for book views can proceed with lawsuit against waterloo region board after court ruling

Retired teacher Carolyn Burjoski launched a defamation lawsuit against the Waterloo Region District School Board and former chair Scott Piatkowski. Last week, a Kitchener, Ont., judge ruled the case can carry on after lawyers for the school board and Piatkowski put forward a motion to have the case dismissed.

A defamation case by a retired teacher who was removed from a 2022 meeting for speaking on the age appropriateness of books can now proceed against the Waterloo Region District School Board following an Ontario judge’s ruling.

On Thursday, Superior Court Justice J.A. Ramsay dismissed a motion by the board’s lawyers to throw out the $1.75-million lawsuit by Carolyn Burjoski, a former English as a second language teacher.

The Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) and former chair Scott Piatkowski are named as defendants.

“I am deeply relieved and grateful for this ruling. It is a significant victory and vindication, not just for me, but for everyone who dares to voice their valid concerns publicly,” Burjoski said in an emailed statement to media and supporters.

Lawsuit filed in April 2022

Burjoski’s lawsuit, launched in April 2022, stems from a Jan. 17 school board trustee meeting that year when she appeared as a delegation.

Burjoski expressed her concern with the appropriateness of certain books in elementary school libraries. She gave two examples: A book that centred on an asexual character, and one about a transgender character.

Her statement of claim says she spoke out about the books because she was worried they “could put pressure on kids to start thinking sexually before they are ready to do so.”

Piatkowski stopped Burjoski’s delegation during the meeting because he said he had concerns what she was saying violated the Ontario Human Rights Code. Other trustees upheld that decision in a vote.

“I felt that the delegate was erasing the existence of trans people, that they were essentially questioning whether people who identify as trans or non-binary had a right to exist, and really that was the fundamental issue,” Piatkowski told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo at the time. “It’s not something I took lightly.”

Allegations of defamatory statements

After the meeting, Burjoski alleged in her statement of claim that Piatkowski gave “false and defamatory statements” in local media and on social media. She also alleged the school board made defamatory statements in a message sent to staff and another posted to the board’s website after the meeting.

The statement of defence says Piatkowski’s comments in the meeting, and to media and on social media were “entirely appropriate.” The statement says comments made by the board and Piatkowski were not made in malice and they were not intended to inflict emotional harm on Burjoski.

Burjoski has alleged she has faced repercussions since that meeting, including being suspended from work, and being banned from communicating with colleagues and students. She also said a formal complaint was launched that led to a disciplinary investigation.

In her statement of claim, she said she became the centre of an “international news story” where she was unfairly described as transphobic and discriminatory because of “Piatkowski and WRDSB’s conduct and their false and malicious statements.”

She said she has experienced stress, which led to her being hospitalized for anxiety.

None of Burjoski’s claims have been proven in court, nor have the statements of defence issued by the school board.

Judge’s ruling

In his ruling, Ramsay said Burjoski’s claims “have substantial merit” and the “comments of the board’s agents were defamatory.”

“For example, they accused her of breaching the Human Rights Code, questioning the right of trans persons to exist and engaging in speech that included hate. She did not do any of those things,” Ramsay wrote.

Ramsay ruled, however, that the idea Piatkowski knew his comments at the meeting and to the media would “cause a visible illness or that he knew that it was substantially certain to follow is too much of a stretch.”

Because of that, Ramsay ordered the school board to pay $30,000 of Burjoski’s legal fees in relation to this motion.

Ramsay said it was “regrettable” the board tried to shut down debate.

“What happened here should not happen in a democratic society,” the judge wrote.

Board reviewing decision

In an email, the school board said it is reviewing the judge’s decision, but “as this matter remains before the courts, the board will not be commenting further.”

Burjoski said the judge’s decision shows the Human Rights Code “does not prohibit public discussion.”

“I hope this decision sends a strong message to school boards that the weaponization of human rights codes against concerned citizens is an undemocratic abuse of the code,” Burjoski’s statement said.

“I am determined to continue this fight to hold the board and its former chair accountable for their actions.”

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