Allegations of defamation have been made against six Vancouver School Board trustees by two other trustees.
The six Vision and COPE trustees received a letter on Feb 6 from lawyer Jonathan Tweedale, acting for NPA trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo, both of whom appeared in a pair of videos involving an anti-homophobia program and the district’s anti-discrimination policies.
The letter demands that chair Patti Bacchus and trustees Mike Lombardi, Allan Wong, Ken Clement, Cherie Payne and Rob Wynen “cease and desist in this present defamatory campaign and refocus your energies on serving the District under the jurisdiction conferred on you as Trustees pursuant to the School Act.”
The letter alleges the six have made statements that Denike and Woo oppose board anti-discrimination policies, have engaged in fanning “homophobic fear,” have engaged in “stoking fear and promoting hate,” oppose policies designed to create inclusive and safe school environments, and have misrepresented non-discrimination policies to members of the public.
“The Defamatory Statements are false and misleading,” the letter says. Further, the letter says, the “attacks” on Woo and Denike “appear to my clients as calculated to cause damage to their reputations for your own perceived political gain.”
Bacchus tells Xtra that in general, cease-and-desist letters are intended to silence questions or criticisms about the activities of those sending them. “Generally, these letters are what we call ‘chill’ letters, intended to chill or intimidate public officials,” she alleges.
She says they are seeking legal advice and will respond to Tweedale through their lawyers.
Denike and Woo made headlines in December when they appeared in a fundraising video posted by an American anti-gay-marriage group to discuss their concerns about Out in Schools, a local anti-homophobia program.
Tweedale notes in his Feb 6 letter to the six trustees that the “unauthorized video” was removed within 48 hours of the Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance (MADA) receiving a letter he sent on Jan 10.
Denike told Xtra he and Woo were misled as to what the video was to be used for.
The January letter says MADA’s use of the video created false and misleading impressions, including that Denike and Woo support MADA, that they are supporters of organized opposition to same-sex marriage, and that they believe speech in support of traditional marriage is being suppressed. It says any waivers signed by Denike and Woo were on the understanding the footage was to be used around the issue of ongoing monitoring of school-sanctioned web materials and that the footage was to be used for a “US documentary program.”
“Both those representations are false,” Tweedale’s January letter says. “My clients have suffered and continue to suffer damage as a result of your misrepresentations and the false and misleading portrayal of my clients in the Unauthorized Video.”
A second video posted to YouTube on Aug 20 surfaced a day after the MADA one, showing Denike and Woo urging people at a Christian Social Concern Fellowship (CSCF) picnic to vote for them if they want to block the implementation of anti-homophobia policy in Vancouver.
Burnaby, which passed anti-homophobia policy last year, is “a lot worse” than Vancouver, Woo told the gathering three months before last November’s municipal elections.
Asked at the CSCF picnic if Vancouver had passed its own anti-homophobia policy, Woo replied on camera, “Not yet.”
Denike told the picnic that Vancouver has only a general anti-discrimination policy, “not specifically protecting one group.”
The VSB passed its anti-homophobia policy in 2004.
“My clients have always been supporters of the Anti-Discrimination Policies, the values they give voice to and the protections they afford to members of the District’s school communities. None of the Anti-Discrimination Policies are criticized in the Picnic Video,” the Feb 6 letter states.
Woo told Xtra on municipal election night on Nov 19 that she supports district anti-homophobia policies. “All students and teachers deserve a safe, respectful learning environment,” she said.
The controversy over the two videos led to the board passing a motion of censure against Denike and Woo, a form of symbolic denunciation of their behaviour.
That censure is also challenged in the lawyer’s letter, which called the motion a continuation of “your defamatory campaign against my clients.” It says the censure was beyond the board’s powers. Further, it says, the board gave no notice of the motion. It says the alleged misconduct was not defined in advance, and time should have been set aside for a hearing and for evidence to be called.
“The Impugned Resolution satisfied none of those requirements,” Tweedale’s letter says.
At the time of the censure, Denike said, “I have never been accused of racism, sexism and homophobia. These are political slurs, plain and simple.” He said his intention was to ensure that parents get a choice in what their children are exposed to in schools. He noted that parents can remove their children from personal health classes as long as the curriculum aims are fulfilled elsewhere.
Denike called the censure and accusations “scurrilous.”
When informed of the cease-and-desist letter, BC Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert told Xtra the activities of Woo and Denike have shaken her belief in their ability to uphold policies designed to keep children, especially bullied children, safe in schools.
“We no longer have confidence in these trustees,” Lambert says.
Bacchus also received correspondence dated Feb 7 from conservative activist Kari Simpson demanding that the school board chair “prohibit the use of several words known to be ‘hateful slurs’ in Vancouver schools and VSB meetings.” She cites the words “homophobe,” “homophobic,” “homophobia” and “heterosexist.”
The Vancouver School Board was scheduled to meet Feb 7 at 7pm.
“I am requesting that at the outset of tonight’s meeting, you openly declare those terms, and other similar words, to be inappropriate; and that you apologize to those in attendance for having allowed such vile and comtemptuous slurs during the last meeting,” Simpson wrote to Bacchus.
That meeting on Jan 16 was heated, with lots of yelling, heckling, boos and cheers from the packed room. Simpson booed calls to censure Denike and Woo and called Mike Lombardi “fascist” when he described the two trustees’ behaviour as “unbecoming.”