I might possibly be courting a lawsuit here, but sometimes the news is the news and consequences be damned.
Last Saturday, an e-mail went out to numerous people, including staff members of the Guelph Mercury and City Hall, that compared certain members of the city's planning department to The Three Stooges, complete with attached picture. The comparison was made by Marc Black, owner of Hempire, one of numerous business owners on Carden Street affected by construction. His frustration palpable, the Mercury published the e-mail on its 59 Carden Street blog, along with rebuttal by Councillor Leanne Piper, and a rebuttal to the rebuttal by Black.
Then on Wednesday, both the Mercury and Black were served with papers. Legal papers in the form of libel notices demanding an apology from Black and for all offending blog posts to be taken off the Mercury site. Needless to say that this is a kind of overreaching, reactive move by the city for all parties. Could Mr. Black's joke have gone too far? Possibly, but far enough for the city to get litigious? Well that depends on your point of view, I guess.
To make a libel case - not prove one, just simply make a case that one could exist - one was to first prove that the offending party was named, and secondly, they have to demonstrate that the remarks could damage that person's or persons' reputation. In this case it's pretty easy, this person in the planning department was named, and if you've ever seen a Three Stooges short, then you know that if your professional workmanship is being compared to them then its not exactly a compliment. Strictly on the merits, the case meets the requirements. But did the city have to get legal on it, as it were? The Three Stooges comparison maybe crass, but taking this thing to court brings another pop culture situation to mind: the kind of court case one might see unfurl on a David E. Kelly legal drama like Ally McBeal or Boston Legal.
The situation reminds me a lot of the suit brought by the city on five of the organizers of the 2009 Hanlon Creek Business Park protest for $5 million, an action that's commonly referred to as a SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, suit. You know, because people that hung around in the wilderness for three weeks have that kind of money in their mattress for just such an occasion. Of course, the city knows this, but the intent is clear because nobody wants to be saddled with a seven-figure debt you'll probably still be paying back 20 years after your dead.
But back to the current situation, one that I think is more about the city having enough with taking it on the chin in terms of complaints and attacks about the way they've handled construction on Carden Street. The attack dogs, so to speak, have always seemed pretty primed with the Little Shop of Guitars' Led Zeppelin protest already getting staff keyed up. Ward 1 Councillor Jim Furfaro was quoted in a Mercury article saying that the e-mail was a low blow, and that the city had "qualified people … doing their best" and not stooges.
He is right, of course. The infrastructure work has been a long time coming, and a lot had to get done in a short period of time. Disruption, city-wide, was inevitable, but the business at that end of Carden have had to eat for a while longer than most because their street's hosted construction projects for over half a decade. But still, who will benefit most from a beautiful new facade in front of city hall?
But that doesn't mitigate the short term loss of business. Small business owners have no one to fall back on but themselves, and when conditions around your business are so far out of your control, lashing out is inevitable, I'm afraid. But the city has brought a rocket-propelled grenade to a knife fight on this one. If there has been difficulty in communicating between merchants and the city about project updates, then that's on the people across the street from the suffering stores. Now I know from personal experience that there's not sometimes enough hours in the day to answer all your e-mail, but if keeping in touch was going to be this big a problem, then maybe some of that money for signage could have been given to an intern with a Blackberry.
As for the libel suit, I hope it doesn't go through. Despite its (perhaps worthy) justification, it makes city hall look small and silly, and given the tenor on the blogosphere, they don't need anymore bad press.