VIPIRG threatens legal action against UVSS Board for libel

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On the evening of Monday Feb. 25, the law firm Velletta & Co., acting on behalf of the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG), threatened legal action against the UVSS Board of Directors for the tort of libel, among other things. The news was delivered to the Board via a letter from Velletta & Co. sent by email.

This action was taken in reaction to recent statements made by members of the UVSS Board of Directors, both in meetings and in the official printed UVSS electoral supplement, regarding VIPIRG and the upcoming referendum question students can vote on March 6-8.

The motion to include this referendum question on the ballots this year was proposed by Director-at-Large Eric Jakubowski, and was passed at a contentious, nearly five-hour-long Board meeting on Jan. 14. The referendum question reads as follows:

“Are you in favour of ending the fee, which is $3.00 for full time students per semester and $1.50 for part time students per semester, that goes towards the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG)?”

The letter from the law firm on behalf of VIPIRG is addressed to the entire UVSS Board of Directors — both Lead Directors and Directors-at-Large. This includes Director of Campaigns and Community Relations Ainsley Kerr, who voted against the motion on Jan. 14, and Director-at-Large David Stevanovic, who abstained from voting for or against the motion. Aside from those two, all Lead Directors and Directors-at-Large on the Board voted in favour of the motion. The letter does not address the five representatives from the advocacy groups and Native Students Union, who also sit on the Board but all voted against the motion.

The letter accuses Board members of publishing “unsubstantiated statements” that “[constitute] the tort of libel,” which are allegedly “causing … VIPIRG significant loss and damage.”

The statements that the letter is referring to include the implication that VIPIRG has committed fraud (the letter specifically points to “serious and damaging” comments made at the UVSS Semi-Annual General Meeting on Feb. 7); that VIPIRG has mismanaged its funds; that the audit that Board members use as the basis for many of their claims was not routine but was triggered by financial mismanagement; and that VIPIRG used student fees for “several rounds of Skip The Dishes from 4-star [sic] restaurants.”

Many of the above statements were published in the official UVSS election supplement, in a section written by proponent Eric Jakubowski on the VIPIRG referendum question. Others are contained in the motion to put this referendum question forward, included both on the agenda and the meeting minutes from the Jan. 14 Board meeting.

The letter demands that the Board remove any defamatory statements that can be found on their website, and that they publish a retraction on their website and in the Martlet.

“The publication of the Statements is wrongful,” reads the letter. “Your position as the UVSS’s Board of Directors and the publication of these Statements at official meetings are especially likely to cause the ordinary person present to view … VIPIRG with unwarranted disesteem.”

The letter then says that VIPIRG has justification to pursue legal action in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, seeking damages and relief for defamation. The letter adds that the UVSS Board will also likely be responsible for covering VIPIRG’s legal fees, should it come to that.

The UVSS Board may avoid legal action, however. The letter demands that the Board remove any defamatory statements that can be found on their website, and that they publish a retraction on their website and in the Martlet.

The letter says the UVSS Board must respond indicating that they have received the notice from Valletta & Co. immediately in writing, and they have until March 1 to retract and remove the alleged defamatory statements.

If these demands are not met by then, “we will have no choice but to commence legal action against you without further notice, and to seek all available remedies, including damages, injunctive relief, and costs,” concludes the letter.

VIPIRG Board of Directors, known as the coordinating collective, say that VIPIRG is doing this for the many individuals over the years who have been a part of VIPIRG.

“This action was taken in defense and support of the hundreds, even thousands of students, professionals, and community members who have contributed to VIPIRG’s research, service, programs, and events over the years,” they say.

On Tuesday morning, the Martlet reached out to all UVSS Lead Directors and the proponent of the referendum by email, and checked in at their offices in the Student Union Building for comment. With such short notice, the Martlet could not receive comment from any UVSS Lead Director or Director-at-Large in time for publication. This article will be updated when comment is received.

This is a developing story. This article will be updated as more information is made available.

UPDATED: This article was updated on Feb. 26 at 11:21 a.m. to reflect that the comment from the VIPIRG Board of Directors was made by the entire Board, and not one individual.