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.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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