Court victory for teacher silenced for transgender-book criticism

School board had shut down Ontario teacher, but judge declares human rights legislation ‘does not prohibit public discussion of anything’

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An Ontario judge has declared that human rights legislation “does not prohibit public discussion of anything,” in a free-speech victory for a teacher who was shut down when she raised concerns at a school board meeting about transgender-themed books in elementary school libraries.

“What happened here should not happen in a democratic society,” Ontario Superior Court Justice James Ramsay said in the case of now-retired teacher Carolyn Burjoski.

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“The Human Rights Code does not prohibit public discussion of issues related to transgenderism or minors and transgenderism. It does not prohibit public discussion of anything.”

The judge was ruling on an attempt by the Waterloo Region District School Board to have Burjoski’s defamation lawsuit against the board and its former chair, Scott Piatkowski, thrown out.

Burjoski’s ouster from a board meeting on Jan. 17, 2022 drew international attention. She was ejected after discussing publications she said are available in the libraries of kindergarten to Grade 6 schools. She had begun to argue the books made it seem too simple and “cool” to medically transition to another gender when Piatkowski cut short her presentation.

Though controversial and opposed by most transgender advocates, concerns have been voiced before — including by leading figures in the movement itself — that gender-dysphoric young people are sometimes pushed too aggressively into medical transition.

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Piatkowski later told a local CTV station, however, that Burjoski’s comments were actually transphobic and “questioned the right to exist” of trans people. He said he had no choice but to expel the teacher from the meeting. He told 570 News radio that Burjoski was “disrespectful” towards transgender people and was “not promoting healthy debate” at the meeting. The organization took down its recording of the meeting — a regular, public session of elected officials — and had YouTube remove another copy of the video for alleged copyright infringement.

The teacher was given what she calls a “stay-at-home order” and told not to communicate with colleagues or students. She retired soon after and was hospitalized for extreme anxiety.

She launched a defamation lawsuit, which the board sought to have thrown out. In a Nov. 23 ruling, Ramsay dismissed the bid and ordered the board to pay Burjoski $30,000 in costs. He said her claims have merit and should be allowed to proceed, adding the comments made against her were “defamatory.”

“They accused her of breaching the Human Rights Code, questioning the right of trans persons to exist and engaging in speech that included hate. She did not do any of those things,” the judge said in his ruling.

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“The chairman of the board acted with malice or at least, with a reckless disregard for the truth. He had made an embarrassingly erroneous and arbitrary decision to silence a legitimate expression of opinion and he was widely criticized for it. It is not a stretch to infer that, realizing that, he tried to justify himself with the public by assassinating the plaintiff’s character.”

The judge said he saw no prospect Piatkowski will be able to prove his statements were based in fact, since he accused her of saying things she did not say.

“I find it regrettable that the defendant who is trying to shut down debate is an arm of the government. Regard for the historical and present plight of the transgendered … does not negate section 2(b) of the charter,” he said.

Burjoski had worked for more than 20 years as a teacher of English as a second language, specializing in children who have immigrated from various countries affected by war and political unrest.

She appeared as a one-person public “delegation” in a session discussing the board’s controversial decision to conduct a system-wide removal of books it considered “harmful.”

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Her comments focused on resources recommended by the board for a transgender awareness day. She said she was worried about two books she argued presented transsexual themes in a misleading way.

Trouble started when she turned to a book called The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey and a scene that depicts a meeting between Shane, a transgender boy (born a girl), and a doctor. He voices excitement about starting on testosterone and when the physician says it would mean he likely wouldn’t be able to have children, he says, “It’s cool.”

As Burjoski remarked that such books make it seem overly straightforward to take cross-sex hormones, Piatkowski interjected to warn she may be violating the code.

The teacher said the book was misleading “because it does not take into account how Shane might feel later in life about being infertile. This book makes very serious medical interventions seem like an easy cure for emotional and psychological distress.”

At that point, Piatkowski told her he was “ending the presentation.”

The human rights code bars discrimination based on gender identity and other grounds in the areas of housing, employment and providing services.

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The widely used “affirmation” approach to children who identify as transgender has raised some concerns in several countries, and not just among obvious critics. Two leading psychologists in the transgender medical community, one of them a trans woman, complained in a recent article about sloppy and dangerous assessment of young people presenting as trans, with overly hasty resort to hormones.

In a statement, Burjoski said was relieved by the ruling.

“It is a significant victory and vindication, not just for me, but for everyone who dares to voice their valid concerns publicly,” she said. ”I hope this decision sends a strong message to school boards that the weaponization of human rights codes against concerned citizens is an undemocratic abuse of the code.”

The judge did dismiss one part of Burjoski’s claim, saying she had not proven Piatkowski had intentionally sought to cause her emotional suffering.

Burjoski also filed a separate legal challenge of the decision to stop her presentation. A verdict in that effort is pending.

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