VANCOUVER – A weekly newspaper that published allegations that former Olympic CEO John Furlong physically and emotionally abused students at a Catholic school in northern British Columbia four decades ago denies the article was defamatory.
The Georgia Straight argued in a statement of defence filed with the court that the story amounted to fair comment and suggested any harm suffered by Furlong was brought on by his own actions.
The newspaper published a story Sept. 27 that quoted eight former students who alleged Furlong, who ran the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, was physically and verbally abusive while he was a volunteer teacher in northern B.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It also suggested Furlong hid details of his past, particularly the story of his arrival to Canada, in his memoir “Patriot Hearts.”
Furlong sued, writing in his statement of claim in November that the article was false and accusing reporter Laura Robinson of waging a personal campaign to discredit him.
Vancouver Free Press Publishing Corp., which owns the Straight, publisher Daniel McLeod and editor Charlie Smith filed its response this week, denying the article is defamatory. They also argue the article is protected by a relatively new legal defence known as responsible communication and should be considered fair comment.
“The Georgia Straight article is not capable of being defamatory of the plaintiff, and is not in fact defamatory of the plaintiff, as alleged,” says the statement of defence, filed Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.
“Alternatively, the Georgia Straight article constitutes responsible communication on matters of public interest. … The newspaper defendants were diligent in trying to verify the contents of the Georgia Straight article before publication.”
The newspaper said it attempted to seek Furlong’s response, through his lawyer, before the article was published, but only received a blanket denial.
The statement of defence does not name Robinson, who said in an email that she will file her own response to the lawsuit in the coming days.
The article generated stories by other media outlets and prompted Furlong to hold a news conference, denying the allegations published in the Georgia Straight, as well as allegations of “sexual abuse” that were not included in the Georgia Straight piece.
The newspaper’s statement of defence says any harm suffered by Furlong was brought about by his own news conference.
“Any cancellation of paid speaking agreements was caused, or alternatively contributed to, by the controversy resulting from the plaintiff’s highly publicized press conference,” says the statement.
“The plaintiff self published the substance of the Georgia Straight article at his press conference … and he is therefore solely responsible for the republication which resulted.”
Furlong told the news conference someone had attempted to blackmail him over the same allegations in 2009, telling him he could make the story “go away” with money.
Furlong’s statement of claim said Robinson knew about the attempted blackmail before publishing the story. The Georgia Straight’s response denies that, but says other details of the blackmail attempt are outside of the newspaper’s knowledge.
Furlong also alleged Robinson sent two emails in November to a media relations staff member and the CEO of Own the Podium, an athlete development agency, of which Furlong is chairman.
The emails, according to Furlong’s lawsuit, alleged Robinson had talked to even more students about Furlong’s teaching career and described Furlong as “violent and a racist.”
The Georgia Straight’s statement of defence said the details of those emails are outside the newspaper’s knowledge.
Most of the allegations in the Georgia Straight article involved Furlong’s time as a volunteer teacher at Immaculata Catholic School in Burns Lake. Immaculata was a religious school run by the Oblates, a missionary order, but it was not an Indian residential school. Students, including non-natives, attended by day.
After teaching and coaching at Immaculata for 14 months, Furlong moved to another religious school in Prince George.
Furlong said he never hid or purposely omitted speaking about his time teaching in Burns Lake or Prince George. He said it didn’t appear in his biography because it wasn’t related to the Olympics and because it was brief and uneventful.