In an unfortunate ruling, Judge Catherine Wedge of the BC Supreme Court denied Laura Robinson’s suit against John Furlong in every single aspect. She accepted 100% of the arguments brought forth by Furlong’s attorney and rejected the contention that he harmed her writing career irreparably by statements he made after her article appeared in the Georgia Straight. Primarily, Judge Wedge held that witnesses may have contaminated each other at a gathering called by Robinson (to which she was unavoidably late) to assess the validity of complaints made against him. Did Furlong physically and emotionally abuse native children during his time as an Apostle at Immaculata School in Burns Lake, B.C.? The judge also agreed that Robinson went about her journalistic work as an advocate or activist rather than a reporter of fact, more than implying that she lacked objectivity. She also held that Furlong’s outburst against her fell into the realm of allowable self-defense.
This decision fails on three levels.
1. From the point of view of journalism, it points to libel chill since Furlong launched a suit against Robinson in the first place. Although he withdrew the suit after two years in which Robinson piled up considerable legal expenses, he effectively ruined her writing career. The strategic problem for Robinson is that the burden of proof falls on the person who is launching the lawsuit. Looking back, it may have been folly to pursue such a suit against a renowned pillar of society. By withdrawing his suit, Furlong did not have to face eight aboriginal Canadians who signed affidavits against him. Nor would the judge allow them into the courtroom on Robinson’s behalf.
2. From the point of view of women, the characterization of Robinson, both by defense attorneys and Furlong himself, as a man hating female bent on revenge was an insult to her as a person. Defense witnesses from the sporting establishment backed up the accusation. When asked why she focused on males, she said that the sporting establishment, of whom she was persistently critical, was composed of males.
3. From the point of view of First Nations, the ruling was yet another denial of their reality. Wedge was essentially asserting that their testimony could not be trusted under the circumstances, even though she did not allow them to be a part of the trial. Their absence constituted an insurmountable hurdle for Robinson to succeed in her suit. What was the suit about, after all if not Furlong’s behaviour toward these very people and her right to report it.
My belief is that the civil trial, whether intentional or not, resulted in an endorsement for the Canadian sports establishment, the same establishment that protected people like Graham James for many years. The message of this trial is that a Canadian journalist runs an enormous risk if he or she is critical of an icon, especially a sports icon like Furlong. It is not a risk worth taking in light of this judgement.