Do Not Pass Section 1: Go Directly to Invalidity

Some infringements on rights are never acceptable in a free and democratic society, including requirements to state facts one doesn’t believe in

In my last post, I argued that Ontario’s recently-enacted and not-yet-in-force Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, which requires gas stations to display stickers purporting to inform their clients of the cost of the federal carbon tax, is likely unconstitutional, as well as morally wrong. The requirement obviously compels the owners of gas stations to engage in speech from which they would otherwise have abstained, and so limits their right to freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my last post, I followed the orthodox approach to ascertaining whether this limitation was justified and therefore constitutional, which consists in applying a proportionality analysis along the lines first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. But, as I indicated there, I actually think that this approach is not right for this case. Here, I explain why.


Pursuant to section 1 of the Charter, the rights the Charter protects can be “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Proportionality analysis is not an end in itself or an explicit requirement of the constitutional text. It is only a means to the end of ascertaining whether a given limitation on rights is “demonstrably justified”. (Indeed, one may well argue that the proportionality analysis is a bad means to that end; one would not be wrong; but it is much easier to poke holes in proportionality analysis than to come up with a convincing all-purpose alternative.) Proportionality analysis is inherently case-by-case. It focuses a court’s attention on the reasons for and the effects of particular statutory provisions or administrative decisions, applied to the particular circumstances detailed by the persons whose rights are allegedly infringed.

But it should be possible to say that certain limitations of rights are such as to be categorically impermissible in a free and democratic society, regardless of particular circumstances. With limitations of this sort, proportionality analysis is unnecessary; indeed, it only serves to obfuscate their inherent unacceptability. I can see no bar in the text of section 1 of the Charter to taking this position. In his article on the history of section 1, Adam Dodek notes that a number of groups that took part in the proceedings of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution pushed for some rights (equality rights were a popular candidate, but not the only one) to be excluded from the scope of the application of section 1 altogether. Obviously, this was not done, but I don’t think that this rejection entails that of a more fine-grained approach. In other words, while the history may suggest that no provision of the Charter is absolutely immune from limitation, at least as a textual matter, it does not follow that any and all limitations conceivable are, potentially, justifiable in a free and democratic society.

Indeed, I think that it does not follow that a categorical bar on justifying limitations of certain rights, introduced in the process of constitutional construction, is foreclosed by section 1, even in light of the history described by Dean Dodek. The idea that section 1 had to apply to every right guaranteed by the Charter was put to the Supreme Court in Attorney General) v Quebec Association of Protestant School Boards, [1984] 2 SCR 66, but the Court accepted it “for the sake of discussion only and without deciding the point”. In any case, this is an issue for another day.

And there are precedents, in early Charter cases, for applying the approach that I am considering. Protestant School Boards is one. There, the Supreme Court observed that limits on rights, within the meaning of section 1 of the Charter,

cannot be exceptions to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter nor amount to amendments of the Charter. An Act of Parliament or of a legislature which, for example, purported to impose the beliefs of a State religion would be in direct conflict with s. 2(a) of the Charter, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, and would have to be ruled of no force or effect without the necessity of even considering whether such legislation could be legitimized by s. 1. (88)

But the best known precedent is R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295. There, Justice Dickson (as he then was), wrote that

it should be noted that not every government interest or policy objective is entitled to s. 1 consideration. Principles will have to be developed for recognizing which government objectives are of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom. Once a sufficiently significant government interest is recognized then it must be decided if the means chosen to achieve this interest are reasonable―a form of proportionality test. (352)

Justice Dickson went on to reject the government’s attempt to justify the Lord’s Day Act, which imposed the Christian holy day as a mandatory day of rest for most Canadian workers. He found that

[t]he characterization of the purpose of the Act as one which compels religious observance renders it unnecessary to decide the question of whether s. 1 could validate such legislation whose purpose was otherwise or whether the evidence would be sufficient to discharge the onus upon the appellant to demonstrate the justification advanced. (353)

However, the proportionality analysis foreshadowed in Big M and sketched out by now-Chief Justice Dickson in Oakes quickly took over Charter cases, and the possibility that some limitations of Charter rights could never be justified, regardless of the circumstances and the evidence the government brings in their support has been a road not taken by Canadian constitutional law in the last 35 years.


I think that this unfortunate. The Oakes-based proportionality analysis, at least as it has developed, focuses on one part of section 1: the “demonstrably justified” requirement. But it has little to say about other parts of section 1: the “democratic society” qualifier, and the notion of “limits” on, as opposed to exceptions to or denials of rights. Perhaps it didn’t have to be this way. In Oakes itself, Chief Justice Dickson wrote referred to this phrase as “the final standard of justification for limits on rights and freedoms” (136) and offered an explanation of what they referred to:

the values and principles essential to a free and democratic society …  I believe embody, to name but a few, respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, accommodation of a wide variety of beliefs, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals and groups in society. (136)

One might quarrel with this list, of course ― I am not a fan “social justice” as an inherent component of democracy, for instance ― or, at least, expect it to be refined as cases develop. More fundamentally, one might quarrel with the way Chief Justice Dickson proffers this catalogue of values, as the product of his own meditation on freedom and democracy. An originalist, for example, might want to ask what the words “free and democratic society” meant to the public at the time of the Charter‘s enactment, and not simply how a judge ― even a thoughtful and distinguished judge writing mere years after the Charter came into force ― understood them. But, however that may be, the idea that limitations of rights must be justifiable not just in the abstract, but in a particular kind of society, namely a free and democratic one, was there in Oakes ― and has (like certain other aspects of that decision) fallen by the wayside since.

To repeat, I would like to recover this idea and, more specifically, to argue that there are some limits on rights that are never acceptable in free and democratic societies. Protestant School Boards offers and Big M applies one example: it is not acceptable, in free and democratic society, to impose a state religion. One might imagine a specious proportionality-based defence of the Lord’s Day Act: it serves the objective of social cohesion and public affirmation of a national religion, in a way that could not be achieved by less restrictive means, and after all it is but a small imposition ― dissentients are not forcibly dragged to divine service ― in comparison with purported benefits. A sufficiently deferential court might even, conceivably, swallow this. But we don’t need ask whether it would. The alleged benefits of the Lord’s Day Act are not something a government is entitled to pursue in a free and democratic society.

I tentatively think that a similar argument can be made with respect to many speech compulsions. In particular, I think that a free and democratic society is necessarily one in which there is no official ideology prescribed by the state that citizens are required to parrot. I suspect that the idea would have been familiar at the time of the Charter‘s framing, during the Cold War. Thus the rejection of official ideologies may well be part of the original meaning of the phrase “free and democratic society”, although I don’t know enough to be confident. But even if it cannot be read into section 1 as a matter of interpretation, I think that it has to be as a matter of construction ― the process of elaboration of legal doctrine implementing constitutional text. Just like a free and democratic society has no state religion, as the Supreme Court confirmed in Big M, it must have no set of secular beliefs mandatory for citizens. Perhaps having an official ideology would be convenient or useful; perhaps it would foster equality, or social cohesion, or prosperity. This doesn’t matter. Free and democratic societies don’t do official ideology ― just like they don’t do official history, official economic theory or, I would add, official science. (Official, of course, in the sense of mandatory for citizens; the state itself can, and indeed must to some extent, commit to specific views on many of these issues.)

Now, some cases of compelled speech cannot rightly be described as or assimilated to attempts to impose a state ideology. This is, in particular, the case of mandatory disclosure of information that is in the possession of the person subject to the compulsion ― whether in the shape of nutritional information that is required to be printed on food packing or that of data about trust accounts or self-study hours that lawyers are made to provide on their annual reports. Mandatory requirements to use a particular language for certain communications are in this category too. For these, and perhaps other, cases of compelled speech, the proportionality framework, with its case-by-case scrutiny of the tailoring of means to ends and weighing of costs and benefits is appropriate (assuming, that is, that it is appropriate for anything).

At the other extreme are cases like the Law Society of Ontario’s requirement that lawyers “promote equality, diversity, or inclusion”. This is a clear case where the government ― through the entity to which it has delegate coercive regulatory powers over the legal profession ― attempts to force people to embrace a particular set of values or beliefs and express their having done so. One can argue ― along with Dwight Newman ― that this is also an infringement of the freedom of thought (protected by the same provision of the Charter as freedom of expression, section 2(b)). One can also argue, as I have done here, that this is an infringement of the freedom of conscience. But of course this is also (and neither Professor Newman nor I deny this) a limitation of the freedom of expression ― and, I think, a limitation of a sort that cannot be justified in a free and democratic society, no matter how well-intentioned (which it is) or effective (which it isn’t).

The ant-carbon-tax stickers are something of an intermediate case. They ostensibly communicate information, and at least make no pretense about this information coming from the person coerced into transmitting it rather than the government. To that extent, they are less offensive, and less like an official ideology, than the Law Society of Ontario’s demands. However, it is arguable that stickers present incomplete information, and do so tendentiously. Not everyone, to say the least, would regard the message conveyed by the stickers as something that they could, in good faith, transmit. This is more than just a matter of preference. Perhaps the sellers of junk food would rather not tell people the number of calories their product contains; but their integrity is not threatened when they are made to do so. By contrast, when a person is made to communicate something that he or she does not, in good faith, believe, the stakes are higher, and the analogy to official ideology much closer. At the risk of being a bit dramatic, making Winston Smith love Big Brother was only the end point. The start was making him say that 2+2=5.

As Justice Beetz insisted in his dissenting opinion in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038, to accept that it is permissible to order a person to tell the truth “beg[s] the essential question: what is the truth?” (1060) Some authority may think that it has established the facts, but one “cannot be forced to acknowledge and state them as the truth apart from his belief in their veracity. If he states these facts … as ordered, but does not believe them to be true, he does not tell the truth, he tells a lie.” (1061) Justice Beetz went on to add that

to order the affirmation of facts, apart from belief in their veracity by the person who is ordered to affirm them, constitutes a … serious violation of the freedoms of opinion and expression … [S]uch a violation is totalitarian in nature and can never be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. It does not differ, essentially, from the command given to Galileo by the Inquisition to abjure the cosmology of Copernicus. (1061)

Of course, Justice Beetz’s opinion was a dissenting one. All I can say is that I see nothing in Chief Justice Dickson’s majority opinion that addresses his colleague’s cogent arguments. Given the extent to which the Supreme Court has been willing to revisit its prior cases ― and to do so with much less justification than there would be to revisit Slaight on this point ― I feel no particular compunction in urging that Justice Beetz’s opinion should be followed, and that compelled statements of facts that the person required to make them believes, in good faith, to false or simply misleading should be treated like compelled statements of opinion and compelled professions of value. They are categorically unjustifiable in a free and democratic society.


The Charter‘s reference to “a free and democratic society” is not a mere description. As the Supreme Court held early on, it is the “final standard” against which purported limitations on the rights the Charter secures must be measured. It is true that rights must sometimes be limited, even in a free and democratic society. But the Charter exists because of a recognition by its framers ― and by their constituents ― that legislative majorities are apt to disregard rights, and to seek to limit them for the sake of convenience, or out of ignorance or even spite or hatred. Some limitations may appear defensible in principle but, on closer examination, are not supported by evidence, go too far, or do more harm than good. But others are incompatible with free and democratic societies as a matter of principle. It is unnecessary to scrutinize their tailoring to their purpose, or weigh up their effects. The Charter bars them categorically.

The imposition of official beliefs, or the requirement to express beliefs, is the sort of thing that simply must not happen in a free and democratic society; it is incompatible with freedom and democracy. This includes religious beliefs, as the Supreme Court has held. But political beliefs, or even beliefs about truth, should not be treated any differently. Canadian governments have no right to impose them, and the courts should peremptorily reject them.

Sticking It to the Feds

Why Ontario’s anti-carbon-tax stickers are likely unconstitutional, and certainly immoral

It is time, finally, for me to get back to the carbon-tax stickers. Last month, I was distracted from writing this post by my horror at the abusive, indecent way Ontario’s Federal Carbon Tax Transparency Act, 2019, was set to become law. It has now been enacted (though not yet come into force) and, though my disgust at the process of its enactment is unabated, I turn to its substance. The Act is, I believe, unconstitutional. It is also, quite apart from constitutional issues, morally objectionable in its own right, and doubly so coming from a government that ― cynically ― positioned itself as a champion of free speech.

The Act is simple enough. Its only substantive provision requires every “person who is licensed … to operate a retail outlet at which gasoline is sold at a gasoline pump and put into the fuel tanks of motor vehicles” to

obtain from the Minister [of Energy, Northern Development and Mines] copies of the prescribed notice with respect to the price of gasoline sold in Ontario; and … ensure the notice … is affixed to each gasoline pump at the retail outlet in such manner as may be prescribed.

There are also provisions for inspections and fines. The “prescribed notice” is, of course, the notorious sticker.


This is a requirement that all those (individuals or corporations) engaged in a particular trade communicate a message prescribed by the government. In simpler terms, an instance of compelled speech. Under a sane freedom of expression jurisprudence, this must, of course, be regarded as a limitation on the freedom of expression. Whether Ontario currently enjoys the blessings of a sane freedom of expression jurisprudence is open to some doubt, given the holding of the province’s Court of Appeal in McAteer v Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578 that the requirement that applicants for Canadian citizenship swear a prescribed oath is not a limitation of the freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, I think it is best to assume that, on this point at least, McAteer was an aberrant decision that can be disregarded. The carbon tax sticker requirement ought to be held to be a limitation on the section 2(b) right.

There are two paths that one can take from here. The orthodox one, which I shall take in this post, consists in asking whether this limitation is one that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, and so authorized by section 1 of the Charter. To be justified in a free and democratic society, a limitation on a right protected by the Charter must meet the following criteria, as recently summarized by the Court of Appeal in Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada v College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 2019 ONCA 393:

the objective of the impugned measure must be of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom;

… the means chosen must be reasonable and demonstrably justified – this is a “form of proportionality test” which will vary in the circumstances, but requires a balancing of the interests of society with the interests of individuals and groups and has three components:

(i) the measure must be rationally connected to the objective – i.e., carefully designed to achieve the objective and not arbitrary, unfair or based on irrational considerations;

(ii) the means chosen should impair the Charter right or freedom as little as possible; and

(iii) there must be proportionality between the salutary and deleterious effects of the measure. [98]

In my next post, I will suggest that this approach is not appropriate for cases that involve certain types of compelled speech, including this one. More specifically, I will argue that the proportionality analysis can be bypassed in the case of many speech compulsions, which are never appropriate in a free and democratic society. That said, an attempt to follow the ordinary proportionality framework here does the Ontario government few favours.


It is difficult to see what the important objective that warrants the imposition of the stickers is. If one is in charitable mood, one might say that the legislature is really trying to provide transparency about the effects of a public policy that affects Ontario’s consumers. (Less charitably, and perhaps more plausibly, one might say that the the objective here is to score some political points off of the feds.) I don’t think that this an inherently bad thing for a government to do, as Patricia Hughes comes close to saying in a post at Slaw. (Dr. Hughes faults the stickers for “not advanc[ing] an alternative approach to fighting climate change” and, instead, “undermin[ing] an approach that has been widely accepted as a positive response to … greenhouse emissions”. I’m not sure why this would be constitutionally problematic. A bad choice of priorities, perhaps, but this is a debate that courts should probably stay out of.) But even if transparency of this sort is desirable, is it, as the Court of Appeal put it, “of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom”? In theory at least, it should be possible to conceive of objectives that, while desirable, are not worth abridging rights for, and I would argue that this is one of them. Perfectly transparent public policy might be a supererogatory good in a free and democratic society, but not one to be pursued at the expense of such a society’s fundamental commitments, which is what constitutional rights are supposed to be. To be sure, the courts generally tend to be very deferential to legislatures at this stage, but even this deference might, just, have its limits ― and if so, this would be pretty good case to discover them.

Now, assuming that the objective of fostering transparency about the effects of public policy does warrant limitation of rights ― a big assumption, as just explained ― I think it has to follow that the sticker requirement is rationally connected to the objective. The issue at this stage isn’t whether it is a particularly good way of achieving the legislature’s purpose, but whether it’s not an arbitrary one. This is a low bar to clear. Dr. Hughes writes that “[t]here is no rational connection between the message of the stickers … and opposition to the carbon tax because they fail to provide all the information”. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that failure to provide complete information is really a rationality issue, or that courts should be in the business of evaluating the content of a government message to assess its completeness.

What the courts can and should do, however, is to find that conscription of gas stations to communicate the government’s message about the effects of the carbon tax is not the least restrictive means of accomplishing whatever transparency-promoting aims the government might have. Being able to help itself to both the bully pulpit and the public purse to further its public-relations strategies, the government can do without conscripting private parties to carry its water. I am no fan of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v JTI-Macdonald Corp, 2007 SCC 30, [2007] 2 SCR 610, which upheld, among other things, a requirement that tobacco manufacturers display government-mandated health warnings on 50% of their packaging, but it is surely arguable that the warnings regarding the health consequences of a particular product really do need to be displayed on that product, and not elsewhere, to be optimally effective. An argument along these lines is not so easy to make in support of Ontario’s carbon tax stickers. That said, a lot will depend on the level of deference the courts accord the legislature. One suspects, however that a legislature at odds with a carbon tax will be given less deference than one trying to discourage smoking. (This is, I am afraid, not to the Canadian courts’ credit.)

Finally, I think the courts can and should find that the benefits of the stickers, if there are any, are not worth the imposition on those who have no desire to display them. But here too, much depends on the level of scrutiny courts are willing to apply. In JTI-Macdonald, the sum total of Chief Justice McLachlin’s reasoning on this point was “proportionality of effects is established. The benefits flowing from the larger warnings are clear. The detriments to the manufacturers’ expressive interest in creative packaging are small.” [139] If a student could not come up with something more than this conclusory assertion, I would flunk her. But, quod licit Jovi, etc. In any case, here again, the courts’ biases are likely to be less favourable to the legislature, and chances are that the sticker mandate will, in fact be scrutinized as it ought to be.


Whatever doubt there might be about the legal side of the issue (and I don’t think there should be too much), the immorality of the carbon tax sticker requirement is clear. As noted above, the Ontario government has virtually unlimited resources to make its views of the federal carbon tax known. These views, at this point, aren’t exactly a secret, anyhow. But if the government wants to instruct its trained seals MPPs to end their speeches with anti-carbon-tax perorations in the style of Cato the Elder, it can. If it wants to put up giant anti-carbon-tax posters on every town square in the province, it can. If it wants to buy advertising slots from willing newspapers or radio and television stations, it can. Instead of doing the work of communicating its position itself ― and paying to do so, if necessary ―, the government conscripts unwilling private citizens and companies to serve as its bullhorn.

This is beyond its rightful powers, not only on a libertarian or classical liberal conception of the government’s proper powers but also, I think, on either a “progressive” or a conservative one. It is, indeed, little more than than naked abuse of power. The Ontario government makes people do things just because it thinks it can. I have argued here against the view the governments can in effect conscript private individuals to advance their constitutional agendas, or that the Law Society of Ontario can force lawyers to act as advocates on its behalf by “promot[ing] equality, diversity, and inclusion”. The same principles apply to a government’s attempt to communicate its views of public policy. This is something that the government can and must do on its own. If it can force citizens to do that, it can force them to do anything.

Notice, by the way, that this is not just an objection to government mandates to communicate misleading or incomplete information, or messages that undermine policy designed to deal with climate change or whatever other problem. The objection to government conscription of individuals to speak on its behalf is neutral and general. It applies to “progressive” causes, as well as to populist ones. Some means are wrong regardless of the rightness of the cause which they are supposed to pursue. This is one of them.


Ontario’s anti-carbon-tax-sticker legislation, enacted in a perversion of parliamentary democracy, is likely unconstitutional, and wrong in principle. The day when it is repealed on struck down by the courts cannot come too soon. It might seem like a small thing― it’s just stickers at gas stations, after all, and unlike with the various recent “statements of principles” and “attestations” nobody is required to believe, or even pretend to believe, what the government wants them to say. Nevertheless the impulse behind this legislation is not that much less authoritarian than that behind these other denials of the freedom of speech.

This is a reminder that liberty is under threat both from self-styled progressives and from self-anointed populists. Each camp will happily point to the other’s excesses and may even proclaim itself a defender of rights, freedoms, and the Charter; both are hypocrites. It is essential that firm, neutral principles of freedom be upheld against threats on either side.

It’s Happening Here Too

Canadians need to heed David Bernstein’s warning about administrative decision-makers’ disregard of constitutional rights

A very interesting article by David E. Bernstein, “Anti-Discrimination Laws and the Administrative State: A Skeptic’s Look at Administrative Constitutionalism” has recently been published in the Notre Dame Law Review. Professor Bernstein cautions against allowing administrative decision-makers to pursue egalitarian goals unchecked by judicial supervision, because this pursuit often tramples over constitutional guarantees, especially freedom of speech. It is a compelling warning, and deserves the interest of Canadian readers, because the problems Professor Bernstein identifies afflict Canadian law. Indeed, much of his argument applies to the administrative enforcement of other statutes, not only anti-discrimination ones.


Professor Bernstein takes aim at the view, which he attributes to a significant number of American scholars, that administrative decision-makers both do and ought to play a very significant role in defining the scope and content of constitutional protections for certain fundamental rights. This view, “administrative constitutionalism”, rests on a number of arguments. Its supporters think that administrative decision-making “is more transparent than” the judicial sort, that administrators “are more accountable to public opinion than are courts”, and that they bring their expertise to bear on the application of constitutional standards to particular regulatory schemes. (1384) Professor Bernstein provides a number of examples of administrative decision-makers “aggressively enforcing antidiscrimination laws at the expense of constitutional protections for freedom of expression and guarantees of due process of law”, (1386) sometimes in defiance of relevant Supreme Court precedent and political direction. These will be of considerable interest to readers who follow American legal and political developments.

But what is more interesting from a parochial Canadian perspective is Professor Bernstein’s analysis of the situation ― his explanation for why administrative decision-makers tend to apply the law in a way furthers their statutory mission at the expense of the constitutional rights of those subject to their decisions. The explanation is partly institutional, and partly ideological.

The first institutional fact that contributes to administrative disregard of constitutional rights, according to Professor Bernstein, is that administrative decision-makers “maximize their power and budget”, and secure “political support, by expanding the scope of the laws they enforce”. (1401) Constitutional limits to this expansion are brushed aside. Second, a purposivist approach to statutory interpretation “practically invites agencies to find and even create ambiguities so that they can interpret statutes broadly”. (1402) In doing so, administrative decision-makers see themselves as accomplishing legislative goals, and ignore the compromises that may have been involved in the enactment of their enabling legislation. Third, administrative “agencies tend to attract employees who are committed to the agency’s regulatory mission” (1403) and want to expand their own power to, as they see it, do good. While some instances of regulatory overreach invite pushback from those subject to the regulation, this is generally not the case when it comes to “antidiscrimination regulation”, in part because “many businesses hesitate to publicly oppose” this regulation “because of the negative public relations implications”. (1403) Fourth and last, administrative decision-makers “do not see enforcing constitutional constraints on their authority as their job”. (1404) The courts themselves are partly to blame for this, because they often discourage the bureaucrats from looking to the constitution. But, for their part, supporters of “administrative constitutionalism” positively encourage administrative decision-makers to treat constitutional constraints as no more than a factor, among others, to take into account or to reject.

As for ideological concerns, they have to do with the fact that “conflicts between freedom of expression on the one hand, and restrictions on discrimination by private actors on the other, are conflicts between a
constitutional right and a statutory privilege”. (1406) As a matter of orthodox law the former ought to prevail, but for those “who believe that protecting vulnerable groups from discrimination should be at the heart of our legal and political system”, (1406) such an outcome would be wrong. They are accordingly inclined to discount constitutional concerns, or to seek to re-balance them by appealing to “the notion that the ‘constitutional value’ of antidiscrimination should trump First Amendment limitations on government regulation”. (1407) These views are prevalent not only in the legal academy, but also among activists ― and their ideological allies among the administrative decision-makers in charge of enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The fact that “[a]t the state and local level” these decision-makers are often

known as ‘human rights commissions’ … suggest[s] that the right to be free from private discrimination is at least as valuable as other rights, including constitutional rights. Indeed, the phrase ‘human rights’ suggests a superiority over mere textually supported constitutional rights. (1408)

So why, Professor Bernstein asks, don’t the courts do something about administrative decision-makers run amok? After all, the courts ― at least “generalist courts” ― “do not share mission-driven agencies’ tunnel vision, i.e., the latter’s devotion to its statutory mission at the expense of
other considerations”. (1410) But the administrative state is often able to escape scrutiny by using settlements or ostensibly “soft” forms of regulation that are not subject to judicial review. Professor Bernstein argues that courts should engage in review of administrative action more often, and that they ought to be less deferential when they do so. He also suggests possible institutional reforms, notably “to establish constitutional watchdog offices devoted to protecting constitutional rights from
[administrative] overreach”, (1413) whether within individual administrative entities or for the government as a whole.


Canadian readers probably do not need me to tell them that the issues Professor Bernstein describes arise with at least as much, and probably more, urgency in Canada. After all, although it rests on foundations that are partly different from those of its American counterpart, and goes by a different name, administrative constitutionalism is the law of the land in Canada, whenever a court is minded to follow the precedent set in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395. In Doré, the Supreme Court held that, given their alleged expertise in applying constitutional “values” in the context of specific statutory schemes, administrative decision-makers are entitled to judicial deference, even in cases where the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is implicated. Whether an administrative decision gives effect to constitutional “values” ― not even rights ― as fully as possible in light of the statutory objectives is to be assessed on a standard of reasonableness. The Supreme Court also confirmed that reasonableness is the presumptive standard of review applicable to the decisions of anti-discrimination tribunals, in Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2018 SCC 31, [2018] 2 SCR 230 (although this was not a Charter case).

Admittedly, the Supreme Court hasn’t always been inclined to do so, occasionally simply ignoring Doré. But its latest engagement with administrative interference with constitutional rights, in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293, reiterated the applicability of the Doré framework, although it is worth pointing out that the Court’s majority insisted that this wasn’t supposed to be “a weak or watered-down version of proportionality”. [80] Still, the majority wrote that

Doré’s approach recognizes that an administrative decision-maker, exercising a discretionary power under his or her home statute, typically brings expertise to the balancing of a Charter protection with the statutory objectives at stake … Consequently, the decision-maker is generally in the best position to weigh the Charter protections with his or her statutory mandate in light of the specific facts of the case … It follows that deference is warranted when a reviewing court is determining whether the decision reflects a proportionate balance. [79; references omitted]

Professor Bernstein’s article helps us identify the folly of this approach. Despite the claims to the contrary of Justice Abella (the author of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Doré and the most strident defender of “administrative constitutionalism”, most recently in Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness) v Chhina, 2019 SCC 29) and her colleagues, administrative decision-makers are unlikely to take the constitution, or even constitutional “values”, seriously at all. Granted, unlike their American counterparts, Canadian courts do not discourage bureaucrats from taking the Charter into account. Justice Abella, in particular, exhorts them to do so. But such exhortation is unlikely to mean much, compared with the much more concrete incentives Professor Bernstein identifies.

Canadian bureaucrats, no less than their American colleagues, want to expand their power and to advance their and their allies’ ideological goals. The seemingly expanding efforts of human rights bureaucracies or other administrative decision-makers (such as the former benchers of the former Law Society of Upper Canada) to police speech in the name of equality are an illustration of these twin tendencies. And while there has been pushback against the Law Society’s demand that lawyers “promote equality, diversity, and inclusion”, culminating in the election of a plurality of benchers opposed to this imposition, the incentives, both in the private sector and, still more in, say, public educational institutions are very much on the side of tacit or even vocal endorsement of the one-way ratchet of obstensibly pro-equality agenda.

The Supreme Court’s rulings on statutory interpretation exacerbate this problem. In West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635, the majority insisted that the statute at issue featured a “broad and unrestricted delegation[s] of power” [11] so that an administrative decision-maker could pursue its purposes; in TWU, the majority also spoke of a statutory objective “stated in the broadest possible terms”. [33] (West Fraser, to be sure, was not a case implicating constitutional rights. TWU was such a case, however, and their logic is much the same.) In both cases, as I explained respectively here and here, the majority gave no effect to statutory language suggesting that the administrative decision-makers’ powers were not, in fact, unlimited, to which dissents sought to draw its attention. In West Fraser, the majority opinion disparaged attention to such details as “formalistic”. [18] As Professor Bernstein points out, when empowered to pursue expansively defined statutory missions, administrative decision-makers will be unlikely to pay much heed to constitutional concerns. Indeed, TWU offers a perfect illustration of this, since the Supreme Court ended up having to make up the reasons that supposedly justified the administrative decisions at issue.

What Professor Bernstein terms “ideological” factors operate in Canada too. Here too, the value of non-discrimination in the private sphere, branded as a “human right” by federal and provincial legislation alike is held to prevail over such constitutional concerns as freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. The TWU majority spoke of “shared values”, notably non-discrimination, as a valid reason for limiting constitutional rights, despite the fact that the Charter explicitly provides that it does not expand the law-making powers of legislatures or their creatures in the administrative state.


Like Professor Bernstein, I will conclude with an appeal for greater judicial scrutiny of administrative decisions that implicate constitutional rights. Judges ought to realize that administrative decision-makers have no particular incentive to be mindful of the constitution, and real incentives to disregard it. Even when they act in good faith, bureaucrats suffer from a single-minded, excessive focus on their statutory missions, real or assumed, that is bound to divert their attention from constitutional rules that ought to be paramount for all those who exercise public power, but in reality matter primarily to the courts ― if they matter to anyone.

To be clear, the issue is not only with the Doré framework ― though this is the most obvious way in which excessive and unwarranted deference is given to administrative decision-makers when they decide Charter questions. The Doré framework must go, the sooner the better, but this is not enough. The idea that “values” are an adequate substitute for law, whether as a source of constitutional guarantees or of administrative powers, must go along with the Doré framework, to which it is closely linked. And the Supreme Court’s approach to statutory interpretation, and in particular its willingness to countenance supposedly “unrestricted delegations” of power to administrative decision-makers, even if this requires disregarding more circumscribed statutory language, must go too. This, in turn, may require an end of the Court’s fascination with administrative expertise and its pro-regulatory bias.

This is, admittedly, a very ambitious programme. But, as Professor Bernstein shows, it is on that must be attempted if constitutional constraints are to be meaningful in the administrative state. “Administrative constitutionalism” is no substitute for the real thing. This is precisely why its supporters, who are not willing to accept constraints on what they believe is the bureaucracy’s power to do good, advocate for it. This is why we must reject it.

Modern Mailmen

Back-of-the-envelope thoughts on what the history of postal services and their competitors can teach us about the regulation of social media

This post is co-written with Akshaya Kamalnath[*]

One of us (Akshaya) recently visited the Postal Museum in Washington DC. Looking at the historical development and role of the postal services in the US brought to mind our modern forms of communication—social media platforms—and their value, especially in terms of free speech. We often associate free speech with the press but, as a quote by Nat Hentoff in the Postal Museum informs visitors, it was the post that brought news to the press and then brought newspapers to the public.

Today, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google (YouTube) play a role similar to that of the postal service by acting as intermediaries for communication. They are, in a sense, the high-tech descendants of the postal services. The post physically transports letters and parcels from one person to another, while Facebook electronically transmits speech that one person wants to convey to others. The tech platforms have just made it easier to convey messages to a number of people at once. Tech platforms also help transmit news content—just like the post delivers newspapers. In fact, the use of postal services to deliver newspapers was considered the most important information technology in the late 1700s.  

As lawmakers are talking about regulating speech on social media platforms, a comparison with postal services is instructive. The postal service is not required or even allowed to scrutinize people’s mail and make decisions about whether or not to deliver it. So why should its technologically more advanced relatives have to identify and remove misinformation or statements supposed to be “hate speech”? Of course, social media can be used to commit crime, including engaging in hate speech as defined in the criminal law of some countries including Canada. The post collaborated with law enforcement where necessary to investigate fraud and other criminal activities and social media companies should do the same. Social media companies should obviously comply with court orders if someone is found to have committed a crime. The issue is whether they should be expected to engage in preventive enforcement.

The further question about whether we should require these tech platforms to service all users equally, like the postal service is expected to, is more complicated. This is because the dominant postal service is usually run by the state, while the tech platforms like Facebook are run by corporations in the private sector. While we can ask a state-run enterprise to provide services to all equally, more thought needs to be given before private enterprises are held to the same standard. Yet, government regulation is being considered because, among other things, there are complaints about the spread of what activists deem to be “hate speech”, and also complaints about the silencing of conservative voices on social media.

Overall, we have to tread carefully with government regulation. In addition to interfering with their freedom of expression and association, heavy-handed regulation of online platforms would have the effect of making it harder for new and, at least initially, smaller players to enter the social media market, which ought to be the real solution to the concerns about the existing platforms’ behaviour. It will be highly unlikely that we see university students create the next Facebook or Google from their dorm rooms or garage if regulation becomes burdensome.

The history of the postal services can again serve as a warning to resist government-backed monopolies, which Facebook and the few other social media giants can in effect become if government regulation becomes burdensome. It is telling that the Postal Museum makes no mention of Lysander Spooner who tried to set up a private postal service in 1844.

Spooner argued against state monopoly over the postal service, saying:

The present expensive, dilatory and exclusive system of mails, is a great national nuisance—commercially, morally and socially. Its immense patronage and power, used, as they always will be, corruptly, make it also a very great political evil.

He added (referring to the US Constitution’s First Amendment protection for free expression) that

any law, which compels a man to pay a certain sum of money to the government, for the privilege of speaking to a distant individual, or which debars him of the right of employing such a messenger as he prefers to entrust with his communications, “abridges” his “his freedom of speech”.

Although Spooner’s business was eventually forced to close by a tightening of legislative protections for the government post’s monopoly, it had the temporary impact of bringing down the cost of postal services.

Government regulation requiring Facebook and other social media platforms to set up a complex decision-making system to enforce restrictions on what messages they can be used to convey will increase the cost of operating such platforms. Any new platform will be required to spend heavily on human moderators, artificial intelligence systems capable of assisting them, or, likely, a combination of the two. While established platforms like Facebook will not find it difficult to invest in complying with such regulations, the cost will be prohibitive to outsiders who want to set up competing social media platforms. This should explain why Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is in favour of government regulation.

Heavy regulation of speech on social media also runs the risk of government using social media to their political advantage—a modern version of the political abuses of the power over the transmission of ideas that Spooner denounced, which we are already seeing in some countries. In France, it emerged that the President’s office circulated a doctored video on social media, despite the President himself being committed to censorship of “fake news”. In Austria, a politician asked Facebook to take down a post calling her a “lousy traitor of the people”, a “corrupt oaf” and a member of a “fascist party” none of which amounted to hate speech under Austrian law.

The converse possibility, regulation requiring Facebook and other platforms to host all users irrespective of their opinions, would also be problematic, because it would infringe the platforms’ ability to hold and act on their own views, as well as to provide an environment in which they think their customers will be happiest. Just like restaurants may ask misbehaving patrons to leave so others may enjoy their dinner, social media platforms should be able to decide where to draw the line so that a large majority of their users are able to enjoy the platform. Or, to return to the postal analogy, suppose a private delivery company insisted on reading the letters or examining the content of the packages we wanted it to deliver for us and refuse to deliver those it deemed morally objectionable. The appropriate response for a person who did not want his or her letters read, or who submitted to the exercise and had a letter rejected, would be to go to a competitor—or to establish one, like Spooner did—rather than to force his message on a party unwilling to deliver it. Similarly, when Facebook or other online platforms set out standards with regard to the type of content and members it will allow, they make specific choices as private actors, and should be free from the government’s interference.

All this is not to say that the large social media platforms should do nothing to address the problems associated with their use. Companies like Facebook are under pressure from their shareholders and consumers. Facebook’s shareholders recently demanded a change in management since the current management had not dealt with misinformation and hate speech. Even though Mark Zuckerberg holds the majority voting power in the company, the shareholder proposals convey a message. Facebook’s management is aware of the market pressures and has taken a number of measures, including releasing its public content-moderation rules and a proposal for an independent body to hear appeals regarding decisions by Facebook regarding content moderation. (That said, presumably, the independent body would still be working under guidelines that Facebook has drafted or at least is in agreement with.)

While not perfect, these are voluntary responses to market sentiment against problems of misinformation and censorship that big social media companies have chosen to invest in. Facebook’s taking such measures does not preclude a new company from starting a modest platform without having to invest in these systems at the outset. As they get bigger, the new competitors could devise their own solutions on different principles, rather than having to follow a pattern imposed by legislation, not only enacted at Facebook’s suggestion but, quite possibly, drafted based on its proposals. Just like new courier companies have differentiated themselves from postal services based on GPS tracking, expedited delivery or convenient package pick-up options, new social media companies may exploit gaps especially if the big social media companies preclude certain views on their platforms.


[*] Dr Akashaya Kamalnath is a corporate and insolvency law scholar. She is currently teaching at Deakin University, but will be joining the Auckland University of Technology Law School shortly. You can read her papers here, and follow her on Twitter.

Environmental Sustainability is Not An Unwritten Constitutional Principle

On the IACL-AIDC Blog, Professor Lynda Collins (Ottawa) suggests that “ecological sustainability [should be recognized] as an Unwritten Constitutional Principle (UCP)—a foundational, binding norm to provide guidance to courts and legislators as we navigate the difficult waters of our current environmental crisis.” This argument also appeared in a joint article by Prof. Collins and (now Justice) Lorne Sossin, where the authors link this nascent principle of environmental sustainability to the Constitution’s apparent status as a living tree. In short, without the UCP of ecological sustainability, or whatever the principle is defined as, “the Constitution would become ‘self-defeating’; to extend the metaphor, it would be a dying tree rather than a living tree” [318].

I strongly disagree with the thrust of both the blog post and the article. While environmental sustainability is a noble objective, and I commend the authors for saying so, interpretation of legislation or assessment of the legality of discretionary decisions cannot be driven by our own personal policy preferences (Hillier, at para 33) . Simply because environmental sustainability is a good idea does not make it a constitutional mandate. Accepting it as such would continue a dangerous trend in constitutional law—a desire to transform the Constitution into a vessel for popular modern policy objectives, thereby making it a document of majoritarian rule rather than a counter-majoritarian restriction on governmental action.

I first wish to show why environmental sustainability cannot be a UCP. Then I assess the dangerous implications of recognizing such a principle.

***

For a UCP to be recognized by a court, it must meet general certain criteria. In the Quebec Secession Reference, at para 49, the Court generally described these criteria as follows:

Behind the written word is an historical lineage stretching back through the ages, which aids in the consideration of the underlying constitutional principle. These principles inform and sustain the constitutional text: they are the vital unstated assumptions upon which the text is based….These defining principles function in symbiosis.

But these principles are not free-standing licences for judges to read-in modern “values” into the Constitution that is designed to be resistant to change. In fact, the principles are institutional or structural in nature. They “inform and sustain the constitutional text…” (my emphasis). Consider some of the commentary from the Quebec Secession Reference:

These supporting principles and rules, which include constitutional conventions and the workings of Parliament, are a necessary part of our Constitution because problems or situations may arise which are not expressly dealt with by the text of the Constitution. In order to endure over time, a constitution must contain a comprehensive set of rules and principles which are capable of providing an exhaustive legal framework for our system of government. Such principles and rules emerge from an understanding of the constitutional text itself, the historical context, and previous judicial interpretations of constitutional meaning [32].

[…]

The principles assist in the interpretation of the text and the delineation of spheres of jurisdiction, the scopes of rights and obligations, and the role of our political institutions [52].

Consider also the Court’s comment in the Patriation Reference, at 874:

[The Constitution of Canada includes] the global system of rules and principles which govern the exercise of constitutional authority in the whole and in every part of the Canadian state.

These comments are clearly related to the role of unwritten principles in interpreting textual ambiguities in the constitutional text, which itself is designed to set out the institutional capacities of the state. The goal is to provide a “legal framework for our system of government.” This restriction means that unwritten constitutional principles, to be recognized, must bear some “vital” relationship to the constitutional structure and the history. These are not freestanding policy preferences: indeed, the Court said as much in the Quebec Secession Reference, when it opined that “the recognition of these constitutional principles…[cannot] be taken as an invitation to dispense with the written text of the Constitution” [53].

Some of the principles recognized thus far reflect this theory of unwritten principles as central to structural or textual concerns. Take, for example, federalism. A federal structure is established by ss.91-92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Federalism, then, is “inherent in the structure of our constitutional arrangements” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 56, my emphasis). Federalism responds to “underlying social and political realities” that are implicitly reflected in the “diversity of the component parts of Confederation, and the autonomy of provincial governments to develop their societies within their respective spheres of jurisdiction” (Quebec Secession Reference, at paras 57-58). The limiting principle to all of this is the use of an unwritten principle to provide meaning to unstated assumptions or ambiguities inherent in the text or structure of the Constitution. Unwritten principles are not at-large.

So, in all of this, where does ecological sustainability stand? For Collins, either of “ecological sustainability,” “respect for the environment” or “environmental protection” “…meets all of the criteria the Supreme Court has set out for “Unwritten Constitutional Principles.” This is because—picking up on language in the Quebec Secession Reference—sustainability is the “lifeblood” of the Constitution, and a
“vital unstated assumption underlying the Canadian state.” Historically, Collins relies on various documents that show that sustainability is an unwritten constitutional principle. The Charter of the Forest (1217) apparently “guaranteed to British subjects rights of access to vital natural resources” and under Roman Law, the Justinian Code enshrined a version of the public trust doctrine. The Supreme Court itself has recognized that the environment is an important fundamental value (see British Columbia v Canadian Forest Products).

But there is a problem with all of this. It is one thing for environmental sustainability—whatever that means—to be a fundamental societal value. But what is the fundamental structural link back to the Constitution? One does not appear in either Collins & Sossin’s article or Collins’ blog post. As a legal matter, environmental sustainability appears separate and apart from fundamental institutional features that are either a part of British Westminster parliamentary democracy, or are otherwise central to Canada’s particular legal arrangements. Environmental sustainability may be a bedrock societal principle, but whether it is fundamental to the Constitution—which is not necessarily co-extensive with “society,” whatever that is—is a completely different question altogether.

Of course, one might say that ecological sustainability is the basic starting point for any society with a Constitution. That is, it is so fundamental that without it, there would be no world to begin with, hence no Constitution. This argument appears absurd to me, and though Collins seems to make it at some points, it never appears as a full-fledged contention—probably for good reason. For one, the argument as taken would make “ecological sustainability,” a goal without any limiting principle, the dominant organizational principle of the entire society. This would be on the assumption that without ecological sustainability, we’d all die. While protecting the environment is an admirable and necessary goal, no one would suggest that it is a goal to be achieved at all costs. Certainly regulators would not accept this proposition because regulation often involves an eclectic mix of performance standards, design standards, and other incentives that might delay the accomplishment of pure and complete “ecological sustainability.” And yet no one would deny that these measures are somehow unconstitutional because they are not sufficiently strong command-and-control regulation. The unlimited scope of the authors’ nascent principle is a significant problem for its own sustainability.

But more importantly, the Constitution could still exist in a world ravaged by climate change. And that is the key distinction between the principle of ecological sustainability and the other so-far-recognized unwritten principles of constitutional law. The other principles are essential to the workings of the Constitution as such—and I mean this in the most strictly construed manner possible. The Constitution could not exist in any meaningful way without these principles, such that they are “vital” to its operation. Federalism gives life to the textual division of powers. Respect for minorities supports federalism. The Rule of Law is fundamental to any constitutional system. Ecological sustainability is an admirable goal to be achieved by legislatures, but it is not related to the fundamental architecture of the Constitution, such that the Constitution (not society more generally) could continue to work without it. In fact, situations of climate emergency might be the most apt circumstances for the Constitution to work its magic.

***

I want to close by outlining some of the pernicious legal and practical effects of the sort of argument advanced by Collins and Sossin. On the legal front, the correlation that the authors draw between “ecological sustainability” and the “living tree” doctrine continues to prop up this dying metaphor as a doctrine of constitutional law. Take the authors’ footnote 70, which outlines this tenuous connection in the context of the Quebec Secession Reference;

Note the recurrence of biological language in this passage (“symbiosis,” “lifeblood,” “living tree”). This language arguably reflects an implicit understanding that all our human structures depend on our biological survival. In this sense there is no principle more fundamental than that of a healthy environment.

This footnote, more than any other argument I’ve seen, illustrates at least one problem with the living tree mode of thinking. Not only is that mode completely inconsistent with the overall perspective in the Persons Case, in this context, it allows enterprising scholars to draw connections and make arguments that are based primarily on the status of sustainability as an ideal policy goal. But that is not the concern of the Constitution, properly interpreted. The living tree is a constitutional aberration, not a constitutional doctrine.

And courts have been increasingly concerned with preventing judges—let alone scholars—from pouring their preferred policy outcomes into the Constitution. I cited Justice Stratas’ comments in Hillier, above. But consider also his opinions in Williams and Cheema, where the same principle was used to the same effect in the context of statutory interpretation. We always have to be on guard for the imposition of one’s personal policy preferences into the law, when those policy preferences do not represent the duly-enacted law of the responsible legislature. How would the people who believe in environmental sustainability like it if those on the opposite side of the spectrum sought to impose a principle of “resource development” in the Constitution, tying it to tenuous constitutional signals like the fact that the federal government has the power under s.91(2) to regulate trade and commerce? The question needs no answer.

Practically, it continues to be my view that there are certain things that are best addressed and constitutionally assigned to legislatures—not courts. Courts are not designed to vindicate the policy goals of the moment. And, for those sympathetic to the idea that environmental sustainability is a fundamental value of Canadian society, it would seem odd to suggest that courts in the adversarial system should be the ones to vindicate that value. Instead, wide study and a nuanced regulatory response seem to be the best options from a practical perspective. And yet the blunt force of an unwritten constitutional principle—that remains undefined, unclear, and unhelpful—emerges as the regulatory response in Collins and Sossin’s article.

Clearly, the environmental crisis needs a better answer.

On the Origin of Rights

Are religious justifications for rights and equality inadmissible in Canadian politics?

Why have we got the fundamental rights we think we have? This is a somewhat embarrassing question for secular liberals, such as yours truly. We don’t have a very satisfactory answer to it. Our religious fellow-citizens, by contrast, have one, which is that rights come from God, in whose image (at least the Judeo-Christian tradition) human beings have been created. As it turns out, however, not everyone is okay with this answer being publicly aired, at least by a politician. This is puzzling to me, and worth a response.

The minor Twitter dustup of the week so far was triggered by the Conservative Party’s leader, Andrew Scheer, who wanted us all to know that he “believe[s] that we are all children of God and there is equal and infinite value in all of us”, from which it follows that no one is superior or inferior to anyone else on the basis of “race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation”. Pretty anodyne stuff, I should have thought. But not according to, well, a number of people ― one can never tell how many with these Twitter dustups. Emmett Macfarlane demanded that Mr. Scheer “[k]eep his imaginary shit out of [his] public policy”, eventually adding that”[i]t’s actually highly disagreeable to imply … that the equality of people is rooted in our status as ‘children of God'”. And I’ve seen other comments along these lines too. Perhaps, as Jonathan Kay suggested, “Canada has run out of real things to fight about”. But I take it that to Professor Macfarlane, and to others who think like him, this is a serious thing.


So here are some hopefully serious thoughts on this, from the perspective of one who does not share Mr. Scheer’s belief that human beings are children of God. To begin with, it’s necessary to recall that something like Mr. Scheer’s view was, historically, the foundation of the argument for the normative equality of human beings and the existence of fundamental rights inviolable by a political community. It was John Locke’s argument and Thomas Jefferson’s, for instance. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed, as “self-evident” “truths”, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Lord Acton would later write that “the equal claim of every man to be unhindered by man in the fulfillment of duty to God … is the secret essence of the Rights of Man”.

A Twitter interlocutor told me that this was of no import in Canada. Stuff and nonsense. Canada is very much an heir to the liberal tradition of which both Locke and Jefferson were among the founders, and Acton one of the great exponents. (The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular, embodies this tradition ― and, in permitting individual rights to be set up as limits on public power, does so in a manner that is more Jeffersonian than the defenders of Canadian exceptionalism care to acknowledge.) Others have pointed out that Locke’s egalitarianism did not extend to the Aboriginal peoples of the New World. They might have added that Jefferson was, notoriously, a slave-owner who fathered children with an enslaved woman. Acton almost as notoriously, supported the slave-owners in the American Civil War, in a shockingly misguided and embarrassing defence of federalism. But I don’t think this matters here. Locke, Jefferson, and Acton fell short of their principles ― as human beings often do ― and this is to their individual discredit, but not to that of the principles which, had they followed these principles fully, would have prevented them from discrediting themselves.

More modern, secular statements about the origin of rights, meanwhile, are full of elisions and circumlocution. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This is, up to a point, an echo of Jefferson’s words, but notice what’s missing here: any indication of why human beings are born free and equal, or how we know this, or who endowed them with reason and conscience. Section 1 of the Canadian Bill of Rights “recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist … [certain] human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This (like similar, if more laconic, language in section 2 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990) is a recognition of the pre-political nature of rights, which are not created by whatever positive law implements them. But again, it is not clear how these pre-political rights came into being. The preamble to the Canadian Bill of Rights declares that “the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions”. The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also refers to “principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. But the connection between these principles and the rights these instruments protect is left studiously undefined.

I am not saying that this is a bad thing. It’s probably more important to agree on our having rights than on the causes of our having rights. I share A.V. Dicey’s belief that it is more important to provide legal remedies for the violations of rights than to declare grand principles of rights-protection. Jefferson could consider the divine origin of rights self-evident, but in contemporary society neither his view nor any alternative can make such claims, and it is fortunate that we have gotten on with the practical business of providing legal remedies against the breaches of at least some important rights instead of debating the precise metaphysical reasons why we should do so.

It would be a long debate. We secularists cannot claim to know, collectively, where rights or equality come from. Some of us, individually, have hypotheses of course. There is Kant’s work on human dignity of course (arguably as mysterious as many a religious dogma). Jeremy Waldron (although he is no secularist, actually, as will soon be apparent), sets out a (multifaceted) justification for equality in his book One Another’s Equals. Another line of thought that I personally find appealing is based (non-religious) natural law, developed along the lines Randy Barnett sketches out. In a nutshell, this argument holds that, given certain facts about human nature ― perhaps especially our general tendency, all too well attested by history, to disregard the interests of those whom we do not consider to be (at least) our equals ― if we want to live peacefully and prosperously with one another, we really ought to consider each other as equals and as holders of certain rights. Intriguingly, the preamble of the Universal Declaration actually makes an argument of more or less this sort: “[w]hereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. In other words, if we don’t commit to ideas like equality and some other fundamental rights, we can be pretty sure that things will turn out badly.

But none of that is, to use Jefferson’s words, self-evident. One can plausibly be a Kantian, a secular Waldronian, a latter-day natural lawyer, but one cannot plausibly insist that these explanations, or any one of them, are the only admissible ones. Nor can one specifically exclude religious explanations for equality or fundamental rights from the realm of admissibility. (That’s not to say one has to find them persuasive.) Professor Waldron himself writes that it “seem[s] obvious to [him]” that

an adequate conception of human dignity and of the equality that is predicated on that dignity is rooted in an understanding of the relation of the human person to God or in aspects of human nature that matter to God or matter for our relation to God[;] that human worth and human dignity are going to have to be rooted in something like a theological anthropology, a religiously loaded account of human nature. (177)

Professor Waldron acknowledges that these things are not obvious ― to put it mildly ― to many others; that “[m]any philosophers” ― or political scientists, like Professor Macfarlane, or others ― “are inclined to dismiss religious accounts of human equality as superstitious nonsense”. (178) He specifically addresses the concerns of those who would rather that religious arguments on such issues not be offered to the public. As read him, Professor Waldron speaks mostly to the position of the philosopher (not necessarily a professional one, but perhaps simply a philosophically-minded citizen), not that of the aspiring office-holder. But I think that his conclusion that “everybody calling it as they see it and giving the fullest and most honest account they can is superior to … embarrassed self-censorship about a matter this important” (213) is applicable to people in Mr. Scheer’s position, as well as in Professor Waldron’s. This is partly a matter of honesty both personal and intellectual, and partly also a consequence of the fact that, as noted above, for politics and law, our agreement on the existence of rights and the value of equality matters rather more than the reasons we might have for subscribing to this agreement. If some people want to sign on for religious reasons, we should welcome them and be glad of their company even if we do not find their reasons convincing.


So, despite not being religious, I would not purge the religious accounts of equality and fundamental rights from the realm of intellectually respectable ideas or from the public square. Indeed, I will end on a on wistful and worried note. Professor Waldron suggests that “perhaps some of the foundations” of our morality “have [a] nonnegotiable character;” (188) they must be obeyed and are not subject to revision in light of our other commitments. These foundations “may include the basic equality of all human beings, and I wonder whether a religious grounding might not be a good way of characterizing this particularly strenuous form of objective resilience”. (188) Perhaps the same might be said about liberty, or its more specific instantiations, such as the freedom of conscience and the freedom of speech.

And so, like Professor Waldron, I wonder whether a world, call it Jefferson’s world if you like, in which there was certainty about the origin of rights ― and about their divine origin, and hence transcendant importance, too ― was not one in which rights could be more secure than in our world of pluralist doubt. Against that, we must count the reality of, on the whole, much greater respect for rights today than in Jefferson’s own time and in his own life. Still, it is difficult not to worry that our lack of confidence about the origin of rights leaves them vulnerable to the rhetoric of those who see rights (and other legal and constitutional limitations) as dispensable luxuries or outright obstacles in their pursuit of plans for remodelling human beings, society, and the world in the name of this or that ideal.

“Clear Enough”

Some thoughts on statutory interpretation.

As I finish my graduate studies at  Chicago, it struck me that a major theme of legal design is the degree of perfection (if any) we should expect from legal rules. Drafted legal rules—whether by the legislature or judiciary—will always be over and underbroad, because rules of general application cannot foresee every idiosyncratic individual application. In such a case, the extent to which a perfect rule can be created is dependent on the extent to which we balance the error rate of application with the ease of administrability of a straightforward rule. Here, we will never come to a perfect balance, but we can try to come to something that is defensible and workable.

The same sort of consideration applies in the field of statutory interpretation. The most important issue in statutory interpretation is the clarity exercise—how clear is clear enough? Finding that a statutory text is clear on its face leads to a number of important consequences. For one, the Supreme Court has said that where text is “precise and unequivocal, the ordinary meaning of the words play a dominant role in the interpretive process” as opposed to purpose (Canada Trustco, at para 10). Additionally, the use of Charter values in statutory interpretation to gap-fill only arises where there is ambiguity in the ordinary textual meaning (BellExpressVu, at para 28). And, as Gib Van Ert points out, the Federal Court of Appeal seems to be adopting a similar rule in the context of international law.

Some may object at the outset to a consideration of “clarity” as a means of discerning legislative intent on a particular subject. This line of opposition is deeply rooted in the idea of legal realism, with its skepticism of judicial modes of reasoning and the rejection of abstract legal thought as a means to come to clear answers on the law. Representative works in this regard include John Willis’ “Statutory Interpretation in a Nutshell,” where he argues that, in modern legislation which uses wide language (often to delegate authority to others), literal interpretation does no good, essentially because the language is broad and unclear. And he notes that even if interpretation could be  clear or plain on its face, there are differences between judges as to what “plain” constitutes (see 10 and 11). Additionally, Karl Llewellyn’s classic article on the “dueling canons of interpretation” sheds doubt on the use of the canons of statutory interpretation to come to any clear meaning that is not inspired by motivated reasoning. Underlying each of these important critiques is a belief in the relativism and contingency of language. Clarity, on this account, is probably a fool’s errand, in part because ascribing an intent to the legislature is difficult with open-textured language, and in part because language itself is inherently unclear. If this is true, it will be the rare case indeed where a court should be convinced that a text is clear.

While this might sound good to a lawyer’s ear—especially a lawyer that is paid money to exploit ambiguities—it does not comport with the way we use language in the majority of cases. And this is where the example of crafting legal rules comes into handy. One might wish to craft a legal rule to cover all of the interstitial, idiosyncratic applications—ones that are weird or abnormal. But then we create a rule that might work well in the individual case, and not in the general run of cases. Instead, we should craft legal rules based on the 98% of cases, not the 2%: see Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World on this score. In the realm of statutory interpretation, this means that we should start with the going-in, commonsense presumption that language is generally clear in the majority of circumstances, after a bit of listening and synthesis. People transact in the English language everyday with no major kerfluffles, and even conduct complex business and legal dealings without requiring a court to opine on the language they are using. This underlying mass of cases never makes it to court precisely because English works. The problem with statutory interpretation cases, then, is the major selection effect they present. The cases that make it to court, where the rules are developed, are the cases that are most bizarre or that raise the most technical questions. Those are not the cases on which we should base rules of general application. Instead, the rule should simply be that English works in most circumstances, as evidenced by the fact that each of us can generally communicate—with only small hiccups—in the day-to-day world.

If that is the rule adopted, and if legal language is really no different in kind (only in degree of specificity and technicality), then a court should not be exacting in its determination of the clarity of a statutory provision. That is, if language generally works on first impression, then there is no need for a court to adopt a presumption that it doesn’t work, and hence that something greater than “clear enough” is required to definitively elucidate the meaning of a text. We should merely assume that language probably works, that legislatures know language, and that courts have the tools to discern that language. While we should not assume that language is perfect, we should at least assume that it is workable in an ordinary meaning sense.

This approach also has the benefit of commonsense. Perfection is not of this world.  The legal realists put way too high a standard on the clarity of language, to something approaching perfect linguistic clarity rather than semantic workability. We should not craft legal rules around the fact that, in some far-off circumstances, we can imagine language not working.

What does this mean in operation? The American debate over Chevron deference supplies a good example. Chevron holds that where Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue, courts should not afford deference to an agency’s interpretation of law. This is Chevron Step One. If Congress has not spoken clearly, the court moves to Chevron Step Two, where it will defer to the interpretation and uphold it if it constitutes a reasonable interpretation of law. In a recent case, Justice Gorsuch concliuded at Chevron Step One that the text was “clear enough,” so that deference should not be afforded. The clear enough formulation is reminiscent of Justice Kavanaugh’s article, where he explains the various divisions among judges about clarity:

I tend to be a judge who finds clarity more readily than some of my colleagues but perhaps a little less readily than others. In practice, I probably apply something approaching a 65-35 rule. In other words, if the interpretation is at least 65-35 clear, then I will call it clear and reject reliance on ambiguity-dependent canons. I think a few of my colleagues apply more of a 90-10 rule, at least in certain cases. Only if the proffered interpretation is at least 90-10 clear will they call it clear. By contrast, I have other colleagues who appear to apply a 55-45 rule. If the statute is at least 55-45 clear, that’s good enough to call it clear.

Kavanaugh’s approach is probably closer to the right one, if we accept the general proposition that language will be workable in the majority of cases. If there is no reason to doubt language, then clarity will be easier to come by. It is only if we go in assuming the case of unworkability that clarity becomes a fool’s errand. But from a perspective of legal design, this is not desirable.

Law has a reputation for being a highly technical field, with a laser focus on commas, semicolons, and correcting the passive voice. But at the level of designing legal rules, including rules governing language, the best we can hope for is workability, not technical precision. This is because designing rules involves tradeoffs between incentives, administrability, and fit. And because humans are not perfect, we cannot design rules at this level of abstraction that are perfect. As a result, in the language context, the best we can and should do is workability in the general run of cases.