Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and NPA Councillor Elizabeth Ball deny that they falsely portrayed former school trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo as intolerant homophobes following their expulsion from the party’s caucus last June.
Denike and Woo are suing the NPA and Ball for defamation. In their notice of claim, filed Dec 18 in BC Supreme Court, Denike and Woo allege that the NPA and Ball created a “false and misleading” portrayal of them as “homophobes” who are “intolerant of the LGBTQ+ and gender variant communities.”
The former trustees were ejected from the NPA’s caucus following a June 13, 2014, press conference in which they claimed the Vancouver School Board’s amended sexual-orientation and gender-identity policy would adversely affect the enrolment of international students and West Side students in public schools. Woo and Denike were the only two school trustees to later vote against the policy amendment. They subsequently lost their bid for reelection in the Nov 15 municipal election.
In their response to Denike and Woo’s civil claim, filed Jan 16, the NPA and Ball say the “Denike/Woo Press Conference” was organized without the prior knowledge or consent of the NPA and was therefore in breach of the party’s terms of reference and code of conduct.
“The terms of reference include that members will refrain from speaking publicly to the media against any consensus-based caucus position and will notify the caucus chair as soon as reasonably possible regarding press releases of media events,” the NPA states in a court document obtained by Xtra. “The Code of Conduct includes that members will not surprise each other on issues or positions.”
The NPA further states in its response that Denike and Woo were advancing their own views in their own self-interest and acting against the best interests of the NPA and the “majority of the residents of the City of Vancouver.”
“Mr Denike and Ms Woo, while sensitive to and understanding of the LGBTQ community, were less sensitive and understanding than the consensus of the NPA caucus,” the NPA response states.
“Sophia and I are pleased to be described by the NPA and Ms Ball as ‘sensitive and understanding of the LGBTQ community,’” Denike tells Xtra. “That view was clearly not what the NPA was intending to convey with their press release issued while the election was pending. The suit will continue.”
In a statement released following Denike and Woo’s June press conference and their subsequent expulsion from the party, the NPA said its caucus “concluded that Denike and Woo do not share the same level of sensitivity and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Denike and Woo also take issue with comments made by Ball on a June 13 broadcast of CBC Radio One’s On the Coast program. “On an issue that is so critical to so many of us in our caucus and that is something that is very, very clear to us how we feel about it, we simply do not feel that the two commissioners share the sensibilities that the rest of the caucus feels, and therefore it is not possible to work together any further,” Ball said at the time.
Denike and Woo claim that these comments have seriously injured their characters, credit and reputations and that they have suffered damage as a result. They allege the comments paint them as homophobes who do not fully support efforts to assist LGBT and gender-variant people in Vancouver schools. They also allege that comments were published with “ulterior motive or purpose of enhancing public perception of the Defendant’s commitment to principles of inclusion and understanding of the LGBTQ+ and gender variant communities in the lead-up to the November 15, 2014 civic elections.”
The NPA and Ball, however, say the press release and CBC interview, referred to as “the Publications” in their response, constitute fair comment on matters of public interest.
“Further, the Publications were made on privileged occasions, as they related to the suitability of Mr Denike and Ms Woo to be members of the NPA and to be candidates for public office,” the response claims.
The NPA and Ball say that Denike and Woo “have a history of acting contrary to the NPA Caucus Terms of Reference and its Code of Conduct.”
“This includes appearing in a video in 2011 prepared and published by the Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance, a US organization that opposes gay marriage, for which on January 16, 2012 the VSB passed a motion ‘that the Board censures Trustees, Ken Denike and Sophia Woo, due to their comments regarding their public misrepresentation of the Vancouver Board of Education’s anti-homophobia policy,’” the NPA response reads. “This resulted in a threat of litigation by Mr Denike and Ms Woo. The video, the censure motion and threat of litigation received substantial coverage in the traditional media and in social media, including in the Vancouver Courier, Straight.com, Vancouver Sun, the Dailyxtra.com.”
The NPA and Ball have asked the court to dismiss Denike and Woo’s lawsuit. They declined Xtra’s request for comment.