Legal and Political Questions about Student Protests

Faced with the lengthening strikes and the prospect of losing their semester – and thus having their graduation and their entry on the job market delayed – students at many of Québec’s CÉGEPs and universities have turned to the courts and have been seeking, and obtaining, injunctions forcing the schools to get back to teaching the courses they are registered for. The injunctions tend to prevent the student “strikers” from blocking entry to their schools and otherwise disrupting classes. The injunction obtained by a student in a technical programme at the CÉGEP de Saint-Laurent is, I understand, fairly typical. Other injunctions, aiming directly at student protesters, have been obtained by universities.

The law, explained for example in the CÉGEP de Saint-Laurent decision, is quite clear. Student associations do not have the same status as trade unions. They are not entitled to impose their “strike” votes on their members, as trade unions are. Students contract for education services, and pay, however little. They are entitled to have the classes they contract and pay for. They suffer great prejudice if they lose their semester. The protesters, on the other hand, can still protest if they feel like it, despite the injunctions.

Yet the courts’ stepping in to apply the law and grant these injunctions has produced an outcry, including from lawyers. The argument is that what’s going on is a “judicialization” of a social conflict; that the courts are improperly stepping in to resolve political questions. This is the issue I want to address today. What is the distinction between legal and political questions? And is a wrongful “judicialization” affecting the student protests in Québec? Continue reading “Legal and Political Questions about Student Protests”

A Belated Happy Birthday to the Charter

I wasn’t able to post yesterday, but still want to say something good on the Charter‘s anniversary. My doubts and worries notwithstanding, I believe that the Charter has done Canada a lot of good.

With Lord Acton, I believe that “[l]iberty is not the means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” And Canada is a freer country today than it would have been had the Charter not been enacted. To be sure, there are aspects of freedom which the Charter does not protect – economic freedom in particular. But in those areas with which it is concerned, it has helped curtail the state’s imposition of its views on citizens, its arbitrariness, its bigotry.  But for the Charter, we might well still have a Lord’s Day Act; we would probably still be extraditing people to face torture or the death penalty; and we would almost surely be convicting and imprisoning people on the basis of arbitrary, brutal, or otherwise disreputable actions of the police or prosecutors.

Pace legislative optimists such as Jeremy Waldron – whom I much admire as an idealist, a scholar, and a teacher – we ought to be realistic in thinking about how best to protect our right and freedoms. In some perfect world, legislatures might do the job. In other, dystopian, worlds, judges will become agents of repression worse than any legislators. But in Canada as we have known it in the last three decades, and as it is likely to be in the decades to come, the Charter and the courts that apply it have been and remain our best hope.

But as we celebrate the Charter, we must recall Pierre Trudeau’s words at its proclamation:

No constitution, no Charter of Rights and Freedoms, no sharing of powers, can be a substitute for the willingness to share the risks and grandeur of sharing the Canadian adventure. Without that collective act of the will our constitution would be a dead letter and our country will wither away. … Let us put our faith first and foremost in the people of Canada who will breathe life  into it.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the courts that have nurtured this breath of life, though not without making serious mistakes along the way; and even more so, to the men and women who have, sometimes at considerable cost to themselves, fought for the recognition of their rights. As the profiles of some of them put together by the Globe show, they have often been perfectly ordinary people; it is a safe bet that without the Charter, none of them would have been able to contribute to the freedom of Canadians in the way they did. In this way, the Charter has lived up to Trudeau’s perhaps paradoxical billing of it as “the people’s package.”

The Charter is good, but more importantly, it is ours. Let’s make it even better.

A Charter Child’s Blues

This was originally written more than three years ago now, but I am fond of the text. I thought I would repost it tomorrow, on the Charter‘s 30th anniversary, but decided to do it today. Hopefully I’ll come up with something more celebratory tomorrow.

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I am a proud Charter child. A copy of the Charter is hanging in my room; right above my bed in fact. Every night I fall asleep secure in the knowledge that “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” You might I’m really taking too far – or even that I’m nuts. You can even tell me this in so many words. That’s fine. “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression.” But the Charter, according to our Chief Justice, belongs to the people, so it belongs to me too. I’m not the fat old lady, or the gentleman wearing some sort of cross between a Chinese hat and a sombrero, or a kid playing hockey, or any other character gracing my copy of the Charter. But collectively, they all are me. So why is that that I have been having the Charter blues?
Continue reading “A Charter Child’s Blues”

Student Protests and Election Law

Cyberpresse (La Presse’s website) has published my op-ed (en français) on the effects a possible spring election in Québec would have on the student protests against tuition fee hikes. In a nutshell, I argue that, given their explicit opposition to the Liberal government, any expenses the protesters would engage in during an election campaign would count as third-party electoral expenses, and would therefore be illegal under Québec’s extremely restrictive electoral spending legislation, which prohibits third-party expenses in support of or in opposition to a political party or candidate. The law was intended to prevent the rich from capturing the democratic process, but operates to silence not only the rich, but also those who are not well-off.

The Court of Public Opinion

What is the place of the court of public opinion in the judicial hierarchy? Sometimes, courts of justice are in effect sitting in appeal of judgments of the court of public opinion. This is perhaps the case in defamation cases, and most obviously in cases involving judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation. But sometimes the court of public opinion is higher than the highest courts of justice. A story  reported by Radio-Canada is instructive.

Lassonde, The makers of the Oasis juices sued the makers of “Olivia’s Oasis” soaps to try to prevent them from using this name and to recoup their profits from such use as had already occurred, alleging that the mark was confusing. It lost. But the trial judge not only rejected the suit; in addition, upon a request made by the defendant’s lawyer at the end of the trial, the judge ordered Lassonde to pay the defendant $125,000 – $25,000 in punitive damages, and $100,000 in extra-judicial fees – on the basis of a provision of the Code of Civil Procedure which allows courts to sanction “improper” actions or pleadings. The trial judge found that

[p]laintiffs, using their economic power and experience used a shotgun approach to attack Defendant simultaneously on several fronts with their full might, attempting by the present proceedings to intimidate and thwart Defendant from its legitimate use of its trade name and trade-mark. Obviously Plaintiffs expected that, given the threat which the action represented to Defendant’s very corporate existence, given that Defendant was still a fledgling business, given the projected cost of such proceedings and, given the obvious disparity in the respective power and resources of the parties, that Defendant would retreat and succumb to their demands, and cease using its mark and change its corporate name or, perhaps would ensure its survival and avoid an economically and resource draining battle by signing a licensing agreement with Plaintiffs – as others have done in the past.

Lassonde appealed against this portion of the judgment, and won, in a unanimous decision by the Québec Court of Appeal. The court points out that there was no evidence of bad faith on the part of the appellants, who simply acted consistently with the usual practice in such cases. Besides, there was no evidence to justify the amounts of the damages set by the trial judge (who, indeed, went beyond what the plaintiffs had asked on this point).

End of story? No. La Pressed seized on the story, in a “David against Goliath” report unabashedly sympathetic to the soap-maker which does not once present Lassonde’s position or the views of a lawyer on what constitutes standard practice in such cases. Lassonde’s Facebook page, says Radio-Canada, was deluged with negative comments and even calls for boycott by minor celebrities. Whereupon it swiftly capitulated, and agreed to pay the $125,000.

Thus in a few hours the court of public opinion heard and allowed an appeal from the Québec Court of Appeal, without minding such troublesome technicalities as listening to the other side or looking for evidence of allegations on which a claim is based. And in this instance, its judgment is not subject to appeal.

How to Argue about the Death Penalty

The NY Times has an interesting story today about two men who are leading a campaign in support of a ballot initiative that would abolish the death penalty in California – and who, in 1978, played key roles in the adoption of a ballot initiative that was meant to increase the use of the death penalty. They have changed their minds, and hope the people of California will, too. What is remarkable, beyond this change of heart, is that the reasons they give for it have only to do with the costs of the death penalty system: as one of them puts it, “$185 million a year … to lawyers and criminals.” Not a word about the morality of the death penalty, including the risk of killing innocents. Apparently, it is not a political winner, although this post by Janai Nelson at Concurring Opinions suggests otherwise.

It might seem wrong, perhaps even perverse, to argue about the death penalty without discussing its justice. But such argument actually has a very long history. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides  describes the deliberations of the Athenian assembly on the question of what to do with the Mitylenians, who had revolted against them, and whom the Athenians had again subdued. The first debate on the matter was dominated by Cleon, who argued that the entire male population of Mitylene ought to be butchered (a word Thucydides – or his translator – repeatedly uses; no euphemisms here). His argument was in part consequentialist – “teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death” – but mostly appealed to the people’s sense of justice, offended by the Mitylenians’ revolt and clarmouring for treason to be punished with death. The next day, however, the opponents of the butchery succeeded in re-opening the debate. Their case was made by Diodotus, on purely consequentialist grounds. Indeed Diodotus argued strenuously that justice had nothing to do with it: “we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but [expediency].” Justice might say the Mitylenians are guilty and deserve capital punishment, but that would serve no useful purpose, contrary to Cleon’s claim. Death penalty is not a good deterrent: “It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either then some means of terror more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be owned that this restraint is useless.” On the other hand, mercy would induce future rebels to lay down arms rather than to resist to the bitter end, and thus save Athens blood and treasure. Diodotus’ arguments prevailed, and only the leaders of the Mitylenian rebellion were executed, rather than the entire people.

Perhaps this story need not change our intuitions – if we have any – about the value of purely consequentialist arguments about the death penalty. But they can work in the political arena if not in philosophy seminars, and in cases where the issues of justice are too politically explosive, they might be the only ones about which rational deliberation and changes of mind among the opposing sides’ supporters are possible.