Rants and Freedoms

Some university students think the lecturer whose class they are taking is doing a lousy job. Someone creates a hyperbolically-named Facebook group to rant; others join; a few post derogatory messages on the group’s wall. So far, so normal. But, after the semester ends and the lecturer, for reasons unknown, is no longer employed by the university, she somehow learns of the Facebook group, and complains to the university’s authorities. A kangaroo court is held, and finds the members of the group ― including those who posted no messages at all, and those whose messages were quite innocuous ― guilty of “non-academic misconduct.” Some of the students are required to write an apology letter to the former lecturer and put on probation. An appeal to a higher university instance is fruitless, and the university’s Board of Governors refuses to hear a further appeal. Judicial review and an appeal ensue.

That’s the scary story of Keith and Steven Pridgen, (former) students at the University of Calgary, whose right to rant the Alberta Court of Appeal vindicated in a recent decision. One has to hope that it will serve as a lesson for professors and university administrators (as well as teachers and school principals) in the future. Students, in case such people forget, have always ranted about their professors, and always will. It’s not always nice, and it’s not always fair; get over it. (This is, as much as anything else, a note to self as an aspiring academic.) The fact that rants now leave a digital record does not change anything, it seems to me: just because they used to circulate (and of course still circulate) by word of mouth, rants were no less pervasive and durable in the past. Stories about professors are handed over from one cohort of students to the next; they are an ineradicable part of university’s environment.

Legally, the Alberta Court of Appeal is interesting in a number of ways. Each of the three judges wrote a separate opinion. They all agree in finding the university’s decision unreasonable  and hence invalid on administrative law grounds, because the university’s decision bore little, if any, relationship with the evidence it ought to have been based on ― evidence of harm to the lecturer, or of the specific actions of each accused student. Justice O’Ferrall also finds that the utter failure to consider the students’ free speech rights contributes to making the decision unreasonable. The judges disagree, however, on whether to address the other issue debated by the parties (and several interveners) – the applicability of the Charter, and its guarantee of freedom of expression.

Justice Paperny thinks the question deserves to be addressed, since it was debated at length by the parties and is important; her colleagues disagree, because it is not necessary to the resolution of the case (since it can be resolved on administrative law grounds) and important constitutional questions should not be addressed unless it is necessary to do so. Both arguments have merit; I’m not sure on whose side I would have come out if I had to vote. Justice Paperny devotes much of her opinion to arguing that the Charter does indeed apply to universities, at least in their disciplinary dealings with their students. Her review of the case law is comprehensive, her argument about the universities’ and the government’s roles in contemporary society sometimes sweeping. And it is persuasive (and Justice Paperny’s colleagues, one senses, do not actually disagree with its substance).

One final thought. The court did not pause to consider whether the university even had the power to punish students for something they wrote on Facebook. Yet it seems to me that it’s a crucial jurisdictional question. (Needless to say, the university did not consider it either.) I can see why a university might be interested in what is being said in its lecture halls, or online on forums it maintains (in connection with courses for example). It does have an interest in maintaining a welcoming, respectful learning environment, although arguably this interest does not play out in the same way as a school’s, since everyone at a university is an adult and is there by choice. But does this interest give a university the right to police the conduct of its students off-campus or online? I think not; but in any case, it’s too bad the court did not ask itself the question.

Don’t ask, don’t tell?

No, it’s not a post about gays in the U.S. armed forces. That’s so passé anyway. Actually, what I want to talk about is co-operative federalism again, the fascinating topic of the least-read post on this blog. (To the one brave soul who did read it: I love you, whoever you are!)

More specifically, it is about the question whether one level of government in a federation has to accede to the demand of the other for information in its possession. (My title is not totally gratuitous.) This question was raised in the recent judgment of the Superior Court of Québec on the validity of a subpoena issued by a provincial commission of inquiry demanding that the RCMP hand over large amounts of information it collected while investigating organized crime in Québec’s construction industry. Coincidentally, it is also the topic of an interesting forthcoming article by Robert Mikos, of Vanderbilt University Law School.

As prof. Mikos points out, for one government (that of a U.S. state in his paper) to hand over information it has collected to the other government has certain costs. The most obvious, albeit often not a large one, is the direct cost of the time government employees spend working, in effect, for someone other than the people paying them. More subtly, citizens might be discouraged from handing over information to one government if they know that it can end up in the hands of the other. Most importantly, the government which complies with the request for information thereby participates in the enforcement of the policies of the other government, which might be at odds with its own. For example, if a state which allows the medical use of marijuana hands over information about its users  to the federal government, which does not, it possibly helps the federal government arrest and imprison the people who in the state’s opinion are entitled to use the drug. Finally, “such commandeering of the states’ information-gathering apparatus blurs the lines of accountability for unpopular enforcement actions.”

Yet so far, American courts have not accepted these arguments, explains prof. Mikos. He argues that they are wrong, and that federal requests for information held by the states should be considered equivalent to the “commandeering” of their executives by federal authorities, which the U.S. Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional. This would allow states to resist federal policies with which they disagree and better to give effect to their own.

Compared to these high-minded concerns, the questions at issue in the Québec case, Canada (Procureur général) c. Charbonneau, 2012 QCCS 1701, might be rather pedestrian. At least it does not appear from the judgment that the federal government or the RCMP are opposed, as a matter of principle or policy, to Québec’s inquiry into the shady dealings in its construction industry and that industry’s unsavoury links with the provincial government. (Might this change if the inquiry uncovers links between that industry and the federal government, as a report by the Globe & Mail suggests it well may ?) But given the sheer volume of the information it is asked for, the RCMP is probably concerned about the costs of complying with the request, as it is with preserving the secrecy of its inquiry methods and sources. The court, however, suggests that these concerns are overstated and/or capable of being addressed by the RCMP’s co-operation with the commission of inquiry and with provincial police. As for the constitutional position, the court holds that a commission of inquiry set up pursuant to provincial law can validly subpoena the RCMP and request information in its possession, so long as it does not inquire about the RCMP’s administration. The RCMP, as the Supreme Court has held, is not part of the civil service, and does not enjoy the same immunities from provincial inquiries as the federal Crown or its servants.

Unlike, it would seem, in the U.S., such immunities do exist in Canadian law, and there seems to be no reason for their not applying to provincial, as well as federal government, since provinces and the dominion are constitutionally equal. As the Supreme Court held in A.G. of Québec and Keable v. A.G. of Canada et al., [1979] 1 R.C.S. 218, provincial law cannot authorize a provincial commission of inquiry to force the federal Crown, its ministers or servants, to answer questions or to hand over information. I would assume that the limits that apply to commissions of inquiry also apply, a fortiori, to the federal or provincial civil administration. But this is an area of the law with which I am not familiar, so I have many questions that I do not the answer to, and cannot, at the moment, investigate. For example, if the RCMP is not a part of the civil service, what other federal and provincial agencies could be forced to hand over information? How frequently does this happen? Are issues of policy disagreement between provincial and federal authorities as serious in Canada as in the U.S.?

Two observations in conclusion. First, the gun-registry data litigation, about which I have blogged profusely, is in a sense an example of a government trying to get information from another, albeit with a (big) twist, in that its claim is largely (but not entirely!) based on its own contribution to the collection of this information. And second, whatever limits there might be on what one government can force another to do, there are probably none on what they can agree to.

Religion in School 101

U of T professor Ed Morgan has an excellent op-ed in the Globe on the topic of the place of religion in Canadian public schools, which reviews the relevant case law.

Schools, he explains, cannot themselves endorse religious beliefs qua beliefs (though they can teach about them as facts): “A state agency simply cannot tacitly endorse denominational prayer, especially in a school environment.” The key reference on this point (which he does not name, according to the conventions of the op-ed genre) is Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education.

However, schools may not censor the expression of religious beliefs by their students, as happened recently in a Nova Scotia case about which I blogged here, short of the expression in question becoming hate speech. That expression of belief in one set of religious canons is often (perhaps always) also the expression, implicit or explicit, of belief that (all or most) other sets of religious canons is wrong does not make it hate speech.

Prof. Morgan concludes:

In short, Canadian law generally restricts school authorities from promoting religion, even passively by holding voluntary classes and prayers. It generally does not restrict students from promoting religion, even actively by wearing it on their sleeve or chest. That’s a lesson school boards and principals need to study.


UPDATE: There are two qualifications to be made to prof. Morgan’s exposé.

First, religious speech in schools, at least by teachers (and indeed religious speech by teachers outside schools), can be curtailed not only when it becomes criminal hate speech, as defined by the Supreme Court in R. v. Keegstra, a case prof. Morgan quotes, but also when at amounts to discrimination in human rights law sense. Speech that creates “a ‘poisoned’ environment within the school system” can amount to discrimination, as the Supreme Court held in Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15, to which prof. Morgan also refers. Although the case is about teachers, and they can surely be held to higher standards than students, it seems reasonable to believe that school authorities have the power, and indeed the duty under human rights law, to prevent the school from becoming a “poisoned environment” as a result of students’, and not just teachers’, speech. However, prof. Morgan is right to argue that this is still a demanding standard, and mere expression of religious belief, even fervent expression, does not meet it.

And second, the Constitution Act, 1867, protects those public religious schools that existed at its entry into force. Indeed, it obliged Ontario and Québec to maintain, respectively, public Catholic and Protestant schools. The requirement is no longer in force as to Québec, following a constitutional amendment in 1997. This is an anachronism today, but in 1867, it was an essential guarantee, without which Confederation might not have happened.

Constitutional Structure and Economic Outcomes

A few days ago, F.H. Buckley, a professor at the George Mason School of Law (and McGill law graduate and former professor) published in the National Post an op-ed arguing that the Canadian constitutional system, and in particular its lack of separation of powers, serves us rather well by helping maintain a free economy and a fiscally prudent government, especially compared to “America’s second-rate constitutional system.” His colleague, Ilya Somin, has a reply at The Volokh Conspiracy, arguing that those economic outcomes would, on average, be more secure in a “separation of powers system” like that of the United States. I am skeptical of both claims. Continue reading “Constitutional Structure and Economic Outcomes”

In Defence of Offensive Government

The Volokh Conspiracy’s Randy Barnett points to an essay by Matt Welch arguing that the more government expends, the more  it gives offence to this or that person or group, because its intervention conflicts with someone’s moral views. It’s not just penal laws and regulatory mandates (which prohibit people doing something they find morally required or require something they find morally offensive); so are various tax breaks and incentives, because “built into each tax or subsidy goodie for Hollywood (or Detroit, or the Farm Belt) is an explicit value judgment: This industry is inherently more valuable, more worthy of support, than” some other one. And that judgment is also bound to be offensive to some. Libertarians come out the worst, it seems: they “have their values stomped on by governments every day.” (Right- or left-wingers, I guess, only every other day, or election cycle.) Mr. Welch argues that we need to realize that “[a]ny power that government has to do something you like will invariably be used for something you abhor.” The way out of this conundrum is to “[r]educe the scope of government,” which limits its ability to give offence and helps “promot[e] true tolerance of diverging viewpoints.”

I have some instinctive sympathy for this argument, but it cannot take us very far. One obvious weakness in it is that government inaction is itself often offensive to lots of people. Government inaction on abortion is offensive to the pro-life crowd; government inaction on inequality is offensive to the “Occupy” crowd (and many others besides). Perhaps less obviously, but not less pervasively, there is widespread (and morally charged) disagreement over how to do even things which (almost) everyone agrees the government needs to be doing, whether its policing, raising money to pay for common defence, or ensuring that every child can and does get some decent schooling.

I don’t think that there is much to be gained by trying to get the government to give less offence. One thing we might do instead is get a little less offended. Perhaps not every disagreement over public policy is, or should be regarded as, morally charged and thus grounds for the losing side being offended. Disagreements over policy are often reasonable; and even when the other side is dumb, it is not necessarily wicked, so that its winning is cause for regret, but not offence. But I doubt that this argument can be taken very far either. Many policy questions do involve moral judgment, and many policies will not unreasonably be seen as offensive by those who disagree with them. For the most part, the only thing we can do is to grow a somewhat thicker skin. Let’s get offended if we like, but let’s try not to get so exercised about it. And let’s try to be polite with each other, no matter how offended we feel.

Life is Wasted Without Freedom

A high school student, William Swinimer, is now suspended from his school in Nova Scotia for wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Life is wasted without Jesus’, the CBC reports. Some people apparently find that offensive. The CBC quotes the school board’s superintendent as saying that  “[w]hen one is able or others are able to interpret it as, ‘If you don’t share my belief then your life is wasted,’ that can be interpreted by some as being inappropriate.” The authorities are now apparently trying to find a “compromise” of some sort. In the meantime, the politicians have jumped in, with the education Minister supporting the school board, and the opposition critical.

Well, at the risk of offending the bleeding hearts of Nova Scotia’s education establishment, I want to say that life is wasted without freedom. And if you can’t stand the sight of an idea that you find offensive, kindly go on and bleed. It is remarkable that in 2012 it is still necessary to insist on and to fight for the recognition of the principle that freedom of expression cannot be conditional on the failure of those who see or hear a statement to take offence. If that were the condition, no statement would be protected from censorship. I, for instance, take offence at politicians and bureaucrats denying my and my fellow-citizens’ rights. (I mean it. I do find it offensive.) What then? All I can do is try to persuade people, as I am trying to persuade you, that they are wrong. What is it that could give me the right to force them to shut up?

But, they will say, their case is different because they are public officials. They have a job to do. They must preserve a nice cozy learning environment in schools, or something like that. There a couple of things to say to that.

First, if school is going to be more than a rote-learning factory, and serve to prepare people for the outside world, it is silly to want to it to be free from any controversial ideas, including claims that some ways of living are better than others. This is especially so in high school, where the students can be expected to have the maturity to deal with unpleasant and critical ideas. If it is ok to suppress such ideas in school, is it also ok in university? Why not? There’s a learning environment to foster there, and lots of bleeding hearts who might get offended. Should we summarily fire all the ethicists and political philosophers, most law professors, and countless others who are in the business of telling people that some ways of living are better than others? Or is it enough to just prohibit normative scholarship in curricula?

And second, schools are not, in fact, free from controversial ideas and value judgments. They teach – well I hope they still do – literature for example, which is full of ideas on how one ought, and how one ought not, to live. If in a discussion of Hamlet, a student expresses the view that hesitation, reflection, and soliloquies are for weaklings, should he be suspended because the less resolute, or more prudent, of his classmates find that kind of claim offensive? Or should Hamlet just not be taught, lest it give some “insensitive” kids the occasion for offending their classmates?

Censoring offence out of existence is never going to work. But attempts to do so will stand in the way of talking about not only religion, but philosophy, politics, and art. It will make the world a very boring place indeed. Life is wasted without freedom.

Judicial Review and Co-operative Federalism

I would like to return to Justice Blanchard’s reasons for judgment granting the injunction preventing destruction of Québec-related gun-registry data pending judgment on the merits in this case, about which I posted here a couple of days ago.

The case, says Justice Blanchard, is “exceptional,” “a first in Canadian judicial history” (par. 21). The reason it is exceptional is the opposition between the “diametrically opposed views of what is usually called the common good.” I think this is wrong. While the conflict between the federal and a provincial governments’ views of the common good might be especially clear in the gun-registry data litigation, there is nothing exceptional about it. Most federalism cases, certainly all cases that pit a province against the federal government, involve a similar conflict between views of the common good. For example, the federal government thinks that the common good requires a national securities regulator; Québec and Alberta think that it is best served by provincial regulators. The result is a court case. When the two levels of governments agree on a vision of the common good, the co-operate and don’t go to court, the constitution be damned. Healthcare is the prime example: neither s. 91 nor any other provision of the Constitution Act, 1867 give Parliament any role regulating and paying for healthcare, but it does both, because (and perhaps only so long as) the provinces share its view of the public good in this area, and have no inclination to challenge it in court.

What is in fact (almost) unique in the gun-registry litigation is that, as I argued in my first comments on the topic, it actually stems from a co-operative relationship – but one that has broken down. “Normal” federalism cases involve conflicts over who has the power to decide whether and how to regulate certain areas of human activity. Who, of Parliament and provincial legislatures, for example, has the power to decide (whether and) how the securities industry should go about its business. (Not, by the way, who should have this power, as a matter of economic policy; but who actually has it under the specific constitutional arrangements we have in place.) In these cases, courts are called upon to regulate the competitive aspects of federal-provincial relations. The gun-registry litigation is different because what it really is about is not competition for the power to regulate (indeed it is acknowledged that, on the one hand, Parliament has the power not to regulate gun registration if it does not want to, and provincial legislatures have the power to regulate gun registration if they feel like it); it is about “fair terms of co-operation” between the two levels of government, to borrow a phrase from John Rawls (who of course uses it in a different context).

Courts are not often called upon to police the fairness of the terms of co-operation between the federation and its constituent units, and it seems not to be sufficiently theorized. For example, critics of federalism-based judicial review (who are many in the United States, including for example Larry D. Kramer in this article) do not pay any attention to it; Jeremy Waldron’s criticism of judicial review, which is primarily (but not exclusively) directed to rights-based judicial review, is similarly incapable of addressing it. (Some judicial and academic attention in the United States has been directed at one specific problem which arises from co-operative federalism: the tendency of the federal government to attach stringent conditions to grants of funds to sub-federal units, which the Supreme Court of the U.S. addressed in South Dakota v. Dole and will address again in ruling on the constitutionality of “Obamacare.”) Yet judicial review of the fair terms of federal co-operation deserves attention as a distinct constitutional phenomenon. To give but one example, and return, in conclusion, to the gun-registry litigation, Justice Blanchard’s incredulity at the idea of an award of damages as a remedy in a federalism dispute would probably be appropriate if the dispute were, as usual, about competitive federalism; but it might be unfounded in a dispute about the fair terms of federal co-operation.