It Ends Well

Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s narrow but seemingly decisive rejection of a right not to be offended

Last week, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Ward v Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse), 2021 SCC 43. By a 5-4 majority, it quashed an award of damages a human rights tribunal had granted to Jérémy Gabriel, a child celebrity, whom a well-known comedian, Mike Ward, had cruelly mocked. As Jen Gerson and Matt Gurney put it in The Line’s editorial (possibly paywalled, but you should subscribe!)

Ward … decided to become That Asshole, the edgelord comedian who pointed out that the kid wasn’t very good. In a few stand-up bits, Ward called the child ugly, and noted that the performances were tolerable only because he thought the singer’s condition was terminal. Nice guy. (Paragraph break removed)

The tribunal, and the Québec Court of Appeal found that this amounted to discrimination in the exercise of Mr. Gabriel’s right to “the safeguard of his dignity” under section 4 of Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the Québec Charter. The majority of the Supreme Court resoundingly holds otherwise.

Instead of my usual blow-by-blow summary and comment, I will offer some more condensed thoughts on a few striking aspects of this case. While the most important thing about Ward is what, if anything, it means for the freedom of expression, there are a few other things to mention before I get to that. In this post, I mostly focus on the majority opinion. I will shortly post separately about the dissent.

The Human Face

Because I will argue that the majority decision is correct, and indeed that it was very important that Mr. Gabriel not win this case, I want to start by acknowledging that he has had it very hard. Mr. Ward’s jokes at his expense were cruel. Mr. Gabriel did suffer, greatly ― we are told that he even tried to kill himself at one point. I think we can wonder whether the connection between these things is all that strong. I’m not persuaded by the dissent’s imputation to Mr. Ward of the full responsibility for Mr. Gabriel’s bullying by his classmates. We can also argue that anti-discrimination law ― perhaps any law ― isn’t the solution. But we have to recognize that a person has been in a lot of undeserved pain, and a person who, even before this case, had not had it easy in life.

The Court

As already noted, the Court is narrowly divided. The Chief Justice and Justice Côté write for the majority, with Justices Moldaver, Brown, and Rowe concurring. Justices Abella and Kasirer write for the dissent, joined by Justices Karakatsanis and Martin. For those keeping score at home, this is the exact same alignment as in the recent decision in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34. Indeed, even the authorship of the opinions overlaps: in City of Toronto, the Chief Justice wrote with Justice Brown, while Justice Abella wrote for the dissenters.

I’m old enough to remember, as they say, how smugly self-satisfied Canadian commentators were, just a few years ago, at the consensus reigning at our Supreme Court, in contrast to the US one always splitting 5-4. To be sure, two cases do not make a trend, but I think it’s pretty clear that on the Supreme Court as it has recently been constituted there is ― though there are always exceptions ― a somewhat cohesive group consisting of Justices Côté, Brown, and Rowe, and perhaps an even more cohesive group led by Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis, Martin, and Kasirer. The Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver are the swing votes. It remains to be seen how, if at all, Justice Abella’s retirement is changing this, but in the meantime, our Supreme Court has been fractured along lines that can be predicted. This is not necessarily bad. But let’s not be smug.

One odd thing to add is that, whereas in City of Toronto majority and dissent were ― by the standards of the Supreme Court of Canada ― at each other’s throats, here they studiously ignore one another. I’m not sure which is better, but the contrast between cases argued and decided just a month apart, by identical alignments, and with overlapping opinion authorships, is striking.

The Case

One uncomfortable question I have is: should the Supreme Court have taken this case at all? Let me take you straight away almost to the end of the majority judgment, where we learn, for the first time, the following

[I]n light of the Tribunal’s finding that Mr. Ward [translation] “did not choose Jérémy because of his handicap” but rather “because he was a public personality” (Tribunal reasons, at para. 86), it must be concluded that the distinction was not based on a prohibited ground. This conclusion on its own is sufficient to dispose of the appeal. [91]

Everything else that the Court has said and that I’m about to discuss ― that’s just obiter dicta. The tribunal made a basic logical mistake, which, as the majority explains, the Court of Appeal then glossed over. That was, of course, unfortunate. But it’s not the Supreme Court’s role to correct basic logical mistakes by tribunals or even courts of appeal. They’re there to develop the law. And develop the law they do ― in a way that, if the majority is right (and I think it is), was pressing and necessary. But also in a way that, by the majority’s own admission, is beside the point in this case.

I think this raises the issue of the Supreme Court’s role in our constitutional system. Where is the line between developing the law in deciding cases, as we expect them to, and developing the law by making big pronouncements that are unnecessary to decide cases? Should a court refrain from doing the latter, or may it properly seize on the opportunities that present itself to it to provide important guidance to lower courts? I have no firm views on any of this, but I think the questions are worth thinking about. (For some related musings, see here.)

Jurisdiction

Back to the very beginning of the majority’s reasons:

This appeal … invites us … to clarify the scope of the jurisdiction of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse … and the Human Rights Tribunal … with respect to discrimination claims based on the … Quebec Charter. [1]

Clarify the… what? Yes. That word. The majority uses it several times in the course of its reasons. In particular, it speaks of “the distinction that must be drawn with respect to jurisdiction over, on the one hand, an action in defamation and, on the other, a discrimination claim in the context of the Quebec Charter“. [22]

This is odd. A mere two years ago, in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, all of the Ward majority judges signed an opinion that not only eliminated jurisdictional questions as a distinct category of correctness review, but seemed to endorse scepticism at the very “concept of ‘jurisdiction’ in the administrative law context”. [66] Vavilov said that what might previously have been thought of as jurisdictional questions are legal questions like all others, subject to reasonableness review, except when the respective jurisdictions of two administrative bodies must be demarcated.

One recent example of this reasoning is the decision of the Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in Morningstar v WSIAT, 2021 ONSC 5576, about which I have written here. The Court roundly rejected the argument that, as I summarized it

the jurisdictional boundary between a tribunal and the ordinary courts should be policed in much the same way as, Vavilov said, “the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies”, [63] ― that is, by hav[ing] the court ensure the boundary is drawn correctly.

I thought ― and still think ― that that was a correct application of Vavilov. Ward, though, says that there is indeed a jurisdictional boundary between administrative tribunals and courts. I don’t think this is consistent with Vavilov. Nothing turns on this here because the case gets to the courts by way of statutory appeal rather than judicial review, and ― under Vavilov ― the correctness standard applies to all legal questions in such circumstances. But the tensions inherent in Vavilov, including in its attempt to rid Canadian administrative law of the fundamental concept of the law of judicial review are becoming apparent. (Co-blogger Mark Mancini has made a similar observation in the latest issue of his newsletter.)

Interpretation

One of the things the majority is right about is that Ward is, among other things, a case about interpretation. It requires the courts to make sense of a somewhat peculiar statutory scheme, which protects, among other things, rights to the freedom of expression and to the “safeguard of [one’s] dignity”, says that “the scope of the freedoms and rights, and limits to their exercise, may be fixed by law”, and protects equality in “the exercise and recognition” of these rights, rather than as a general self-standing right. This is not an easy exercise and I won’t go into all the details, but I will make a few comments.

The majority deserves credit for trying to work out an independent meaning for the right to the safeguard of one’s dignity. As it notes, dignity is a very tricky concept ― and the Supreme Court itself has tried to avoid putting too much weight on it in other contexts. But here it is, in the text of the Québec Charter, a statute that binds the courts. It will not to do to simply find violations of dignity when other rights are violated in particularly egregious ways, as Québec courts had done. The Québec Charter makes it a distinct right, and the courts must treat it as such. At the same time, they have to give it defined contours. The majority seeks to do so by stressing the importance of the safeguard of dignity, to which the right is directed:

Unlike, for example, s. 5 [of the Québec Charter], which confers a right to respect for one’s private life, s. 4 does not permit a person to claim respect for their dignity, but only the safeguarding of their dignity, that is, protection from the denial of their worth as a human being. Where a person is stripped of their humanity by being subjected to treatment that debases, subjugates, objectifies, humiliates or degrades them, there is no question that their dignity is violated. In this sense, the right to the safeguard of dignity is a shield against this type of interference that does no less than outrage the conscience of society. [58]

What the majority does is a careful and, I think, pretty convincing reading of the statutory text. Good.

Some things the majority says are not so good. For instance: “the interpretation of this provision must be refocused on its purpose by considering its wording and context”. [55] No, no, no. Interpretation should be focused on text understood in context. Purpose can sometimes help a court understand the words and enrich its understanding of the context, but it should not be the focus of interpretation. And then, there is this:

This Court’s jurisprudence also establishes “that mere differences in terminology do not support a conclusion that there are fundamental differences in the objectives of human rights statutes” … It follows that, as long as this is not contrary to the usual rules of interpretation, symmetry in the interpretation of the various instruments that protect human rights and freedoms is desirable. [68; quoting Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v Montréal (City), 2000 SCC 27, [2000] 1 SCR 665, [47]]

What are we to make of this? If usual rules interpretation are to prevail, differences in terminology must make a difference, if not to the objectives then to the effects of human rights as of any other statutes. And the idea that differences in wording don’t matter because objectives are key to interpretation is specifically rejected in the majority opinion in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 ― signed onto by the same five judges who are in the majority in Ward (even as it is endorsed by the concurrence).

Between the jurisdiction issue and this, I cannot help but wonder whether their Lordships remember what they said last year. Or are they trying to say that we are supposed not to? This stream of inconsistent pronouncements ― by the same people! ― reveals, at best, a lack of attention to legal doctrine and craft. It is very disappointing.

Freedom of Expression

I finally come to the meat of the case. Here too, I want to praise the majority for getting things fundamentally right, but also to criticize them for saying things along the way that are doubtful or even wrong in themselves, or inconsistent ― without explanation ― with important precedent.

Let me start with a quick note from the “judges are not philosophers” file. The majority’s discussion of the freedom of expression begins with the assertion that it, “[l]ike the right to the safeguard of dignity … flows from the concept of human dignity”. [59] Perhaps. But in the next paragraph the majority quotes Joseph Raz’s claim that “a person’s right to free expression is protected not in order to protect him, but in order to protect a public good, a benefit which respect for the right of free expression brings to all those who live in the society in which it is respected”. [60] These are two quite different views of the foundations and purposes of the freedom of expression ― one deontological, the other utilitarian. Perhaps nothing turns on which of these is correct in this case, but if so, the majority shouldn’t be making these philosophical declarations at all. And I suspect that in some cases the choice might actually make a difference. The majority’s approach is muddled and unhelpful.

Now for some good things. This, especially: “freedom of expression does not truly begin until it gives rise to a duty to tolerate what other people say”. [60] This is the key to so many disputes about freedom of expression. Speech is not harmless. It can hurt. It can propagate falsehoods. It can inflame base passions. But freedom of expression means sometimes having to tolerate such things ― just like freedom of assembly means having to tolerate noisy protests, and freedom of religion means having to tolerate heresy and blasphemy ― even when their cost falls on particular groups or even individuals.

The majority adds that “[l]imits on freedom of expression are justified where, in a given context, there are serious reasons to fear harm that is sufficiently specific and cannot be prevented by the discernment and critical judgment of the audience”. [61] This sets a fairly high bar to limits that will be considered justified. It also acknowledges that the audience has its share of responsibility in appreciating troublesome words. Courts assessing a limit on the freedom of expression should not assume that citizens are, by default, unthinking and gullible playthings for the tellers of tall tales. This is also good and important. Assuming away all critical sense among the citizens would help justify all kinds of restrictions on speech, including, and perhaps especially, in the political arena. It is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a self-governing, responsible citizenry.

But this insistence sits uneasily, to say the least, with the Court’s position in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827. There, the majority said that

The legislature is not required to provide scientific proof based on concrete evidence of the problem it seeks to address in every case. Where the court is faced with inconclusive or competing social science evidence relating the harm to the legislature’s measures, the court may rely on a reasoned apprehension of that harm. [77]

This is contrast to the Harper dissent’s concern that “[t]here [was] no demonstration that” the limits on “third party” spending at issue were “required to meet the perceived dangers of inequality, an uninformed electorate and the public perception that the system is unfair”. [38] By my lights, Ward‘s insistence on serious reasons to fear specific harm, as well as on audience discernment is much more in tune with the Harper dissent. Because I regard Harper as an abominable decision, I am happy to see Ward go in a different direction. But there is no comment in Ward on how these cases interact. Again, it’s as if the judges don’t remember what the law says, though at least Harper is a much older case that Vavilov and Québec Inc.  

All that said, the substance of the majority’s decision is right and reassuring (or it would be reassuring if more than five judges had signed on). The majority insists that the right to the safeguard of one’s dignity most not be “vague” or given “a scope so broad that it would neutralize freedom of expression”. [80] It stresses the objective nature of the test for whether this right is breached and rejects the modified objective standard of “a reasonable person targeted by the same words”, because “[t]hat approach results in a shift toward protecting a right not to be offended, which has no place in a democratic society”. [82] What matters is neither “the repugnant or offensive nature of the expression [nor] the emotional harm caused”, [82] but the effect of the words on listeners: would “a reasonable person, aware of the relevant context and circumstances, … view the expression … as inciting others to vilify [its targets] or to detest their humanity on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination” [83] and would “a reasonable person would view the expression, considered in its context, as likely to lead to discriminatory treatment of the person targeted”? [84]

All this is the more important since the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Québec Charter is very broad and includes “political convictions”. As I have written here, “even if we accept the need to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech targeting them, I struggle to see what makes it necessary to extend this protection to members of political parties or movements”. Protecting people from mockery, let alone hurt feelings, based on their political views is incompatible with lively democratic debate. However much we can wish for such debate to usually be civil, I think it’s a mistake to insist that it always must be, and certainly a grave mistake to put government officials in charge of deciding whether it is sufficiently civil on any give occasion.


The insistence on the need for objective assessment and the clear rejection of a right not to be offended will, I hope, be the key takeaway from Ward. For them, we can forgive the majority opinion its many flaws. That there can be no right not to be offended in a society that proclaims its commitment to the freedom of expression and to democracy might have been self-evident ten years ago, but it evidently isn’t anymore. The dissent offers us a glimpse of what a world in which this truth isn’t recognized looks like. I will focus on it in a forthcoming post.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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.

One thought on “It Ends Well”

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