The Charter Conscription

The trouble with governments forcing citizens to advance their constitutional agendas

In his Policy Options post on the federal government’s denial of funding under the Canada Summer Jobs Programme to those who do not share its views on reproductive and equality rights, Brian Bird wrote that the government “has weaponized the Charter, using it as a sword against nonconforming citizens”. As I have already noted here, I think this observation is fundamentally correct. But Mr. Bird’s metaphor doesn’t quite capture what is going on.

It is not just, or perhaps even so much, that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is being used as a weapon against citizens. After all it is true that, as Jennifer Taylor pointed out in her defence of the government’s policy in the CBA National Magazine, anti-abortionists “are free to promote their views on social media, fundraise from private donors, and advocate against abortion in certain spaces to those willing to listen”, though the space for advocacy is being narrowed ― a point to which I will return. But if the Charter is not yet being used to take away people’s rights (except when it really is, as in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038), it is already being help up as a banner under which increasing numbers of citizens must be conscripted to advance the government’s agenda of protecting some real or purported constitutional rights.

The federal government’s endeavour to enlist the recipients of Canada Summer Jobs funding in the service of productive Charter and “other” rights, and Charter values too, in the bargain, is not an isolated one. In Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia, law societies ― which are, though people apparently forget this, not private clubs but regulatory instrumentalities of the state ― have sought to ensure that law schools respect the equality rights of gays and lesbians by denying accreditation to one that conspicuously fails to do so. In Ontario, the law society is also demanding that all lawyers acknowledge an (inexistent) obligation to “promote equality, diversity and inclusion”.

In this context, the insistence of Ms. Taylor and what few other defenders the federal government has that “[t]he government shouldn’t be funding activism against constitutional rights when the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada” is rather selective. While the issue in the case of the Summer Jobs Programme is public funding, in other cases it is accreditation or licensing that cost the government nothing (or, in the case of lawyer licensing, is highly lucrative). Yet the government’s reasoning in these different cases is essentially the same. It seeks to ensure that individuals or groups subject to its control act consistently with its agenda, defined ― hypocritically, as I will presently argue ― as a constitution-protecting one. Whether the instrument, in each case, is a subsidy, a license, or some other regulatory tool, is beside the point ― certainly as a matter of political morality but also, I would suggest, as a matter of constitutional law.

Now, the professed adherence of those who would force others to advance their “constitutional” agenda to the Charter is, in my view, selective to the point of hypocrisy. I have already argued, here and elsewhere, that the federal government in particular is guilty of “playing favourites” with the constitution, as indeed are large parts of Canada’s legal community. Something similar is happening here too. For instance, the self-anointed defenders of the Charter ignore its section 32(1), which provides that the “Charter applies … to the Parliament and government of Canada … and … to the legislature and government of each province”. The Charter, by its own terms, does not apply to or bind private parties, and it is wrong to invoke it to justify the imposition of rights-protecting obligations on those on whom it was not intended to impose any.

And then, there is the fact while governments seem increasingly happy to impose their duty to uphold some Charter rights on others, they would do no such thing with other rights, which they deem less pressing or less in need of widespread compliance. For example, while Law Societies are much alarmed by the fact that a law school might discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, nobody seems especially concerned by the fact that a different law school in the same province apparently conditions its hiring decisions on the prospective candidates’ commitment to social justice or “equity in scholarship” ― freedom of opinion, academic freedom, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of political belief be damned. The federal government doesn’t want to fund anti-abortionists, but would it object to funding, say, a women’s group working to dilute the presumption of innocence or other protections available to men accused of sexual assault? Or would deny benefits to a crime-victims’ group campaigning against the Supreme Court’s understanding of the right to be tried within a reasonable time?

These last two examples show, by the way, that, as much as we may love the Charter, the precise contours of its protections can and ought to be debated ― and that it’s not a given that the scope of what are currently recognized as Charter rights should never be restricted. Now, I hasten to add that I personally think that undermining the presumption of innocence would be disastrously wrong, and I’ve argued here that the Supreme Court’s decision in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, [2016] 1 SCR 631, which imposed strict time limits on criminal trials, is more defensible than its numerous critics allowed. But these are my opinions, and I really don’t think that the government should seek to impose them on those who happen not to share them. Similarly, I do not think that the government should seek to impose the Supreme Court’s misguided opinions about the purported “rights” of trade unions on people like me. One can support the constitution while seeking to have it amended; one can certainly support the Charter while seeking to have some interpretations of it by the Supreme Court overturned; and, in any case, in a free society, no citizen ― as opposed to an office-holder ― is under no a duty to support the constitution at all.

But governments and their acolytes have no time for such complexity. They are convinced that anything less than enthusiastic universal support for whatever definition they happen to espouse of whatever rights they happen to prioritize is a threat to these rights and to the constitution as a whole. This is simply not so. To Ms. Taylor “[i]t seems self-evident in 2018 that an anti-abortion organization should not receive federal government funds to hire summer students”, since funding anti-abortionists would threaten “the Charter rights of women, like the right to autonomy over their own bodies”. What should, instead be self-evident, though it manifestly isn’t, is that anti-abortion advocacy, whether federally funded or not, does not by itself impede anyone’s access to abortions. Unless governments themselves decide restrict access, this advocacy is so much hot air. Similarly, the creation of a homophobic law school out in British Columbia doesn’t reduce gays’ and lesbians’ access to any of the other law schools in Canada. And, needless to say, my or anyone else’s failure to “acknowledge” a purported obligation to “promote equality, diversity and inclusion” doesn’t take anything away from the rights that various persons or groups have under the equality-protecting provisions of the Charter or human rights legislation.

Yet in all these situations the existence of expression that contradicts rights claims (such as anti-abortionist propaganda) or indeed silence that is often unfairly interpreted to do so (such as failure to “acknowledge” whatever “obligations” the Law Society of Ontario invents) is deemed harmful. There is, in reality, no harm other than the hurt feelings of vocal factions ― whose membership is in no way coterminous with the groups on whose behalf they purport to speak. But if someone’s hurt feelings give the government the right to impose that person’s views on everyone else, there is nothing the government cannot do. Under the guise of an impassioned defence of the Charter, those who adhere to this logic of empowering government are actually working ― wittingly or not ― to remove constitutional barriers on its powers, so that the full weight of these powers can be brought to bear on ideological minorities.

Already, the room for dissent is shrinking. To repeat, Ms. Taylor points out that anti-abortionists remain “free to promote their views on social media, fundraise from private donors, and advocate against abortion in certain spaces to those willing to listen” (emphasis mine). But, as the emphasized part of that sentence suggests, some spaces for public advocacy have already been closed off to them. In Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform v Grande Prairie (City), 2016 ABQB 734, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench upheld a city’s decision to ban anti-abortionist advertising, which was neither especially strongly worded nor particularly visually upsetting (though the website of the organization promoting was both), from its public buses. It was, I have argued here, a “disturbing if not perverse” decision, inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent; I further explained that its reliance on a specious argument to the effect that the people who might see the ads at issue were a “captive audience” was specious and unsupported by authority. But there it is ― and if the decision stands (there is, I take it, an ongoing appeal), governments will be allowed to ban the communication of anti-abortionist ― and otherwise obnoxious ― messages except perhaps to those who already agree with them. And of course, they will not need to stop at censorship. On the same logic that allows government to deny subsidies to organizations based on their views or agendas, it should be possible to deny them or their donors tax credits, which after all are just another form of subsidy, putting them at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to fundraising too. Nor need the government stop at interfering with the freedoms of ideologically-driven organizations. How about requiring anyone who wants to receive money from Employment Insurance or Old Age Security to submit an “attestation” similar to the one required of applicants to the Summer Jobs Programme? They too might use their money to advocate against abortion rights! There is nothing in Ms. Taylor’s ― or the federal government’s ― position that would prevent such an imposition.

The constitution binds the government. It limit its freedom of action. It does not, however, bind, constrain, or even command the unconditional support of citizens or the organizations that citizens form. The government cannot conscript citizens into a pro-constitutional task force; it cannot bind them to constitutional obligations in a way the constitution itself conspicuously does not. Citizens remain free peacefully to challenge the constitution in whole or in part, and to contest the way in which it has been interpreted by the courts. The government may not demand that citizens refrain from doing so, or induce them to refrain. The government, to be sure, need not encourage or subsidize contestation ― but only so long as it does not encourage or subsidize support either. If money is offered, it must be offered on equal terms to the holders of all views. And if this means that less money will be offered in various programmes, subsidies, and tax credits ― so much the better.

The Detestable Attestation

Thoughts on the federal government’s attempt to make religious groups capitulate to its views on abortion

The federal government dishes out money to various organizations to hire young people for summer jobs. But starting this year, the government decreed that there will be no money for any groups that do not

attest that both the job [for which young people will be hired] and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

Despite the seeming generality (the absurd generality, as I will explain below) of this statement, the government’s focus is quite clearly on “women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights, and the rights of gender-diverse and transgender Canadians”, and more specifically on “sexual and reproductive rights — and the right to access safe and legal abortions”, which are said to be “at the core of the Government of Canada’s foreign and domestic policies”.

Predictably ― except, it would seem, for the government itself ― many religious groups, who were among the frequent recipients of funding under the summer jobs programme in the past, and whose contributions the Prime Minister himself claims to value, are objecting to this attestation. Since they do not share the government’s vision of “sexual and reproductive rights”, especially when it comes to abortions, they are reluctant to profess their “core mandate”‘s consistency with these rights. The government argues that the objectors misunderstand the point of the “attestation” ― it is enough for it that the group not be primarily anti-abortionist ― but for religious groups themselves, implying that their pro-life views are somehow not “core” is out of question. As they see it, they are being denied access to a government benefit for which they would otherwise qualify on the basis of their religious and conscientious beliefs.

They are quite right, as many commentators have already pointed out. John Ibbitson, in The Globe and Mail, equates the attestation with “making applicants sign on to a Liberal values manifesto”. In the National Post, John Ivison echoes this analysis and adds that “there is a hierarchy of rights in this country: at the apex are those rights the Liberals find agreeable, at its base are those they find abhorrent”. In a CBC Opinion piece, David Millar Haskell points out that the government’s insistence that religious organizations can sign the attestation “shows a complete lack of awareness of what it means to be ethical”, because it cannot be embraced with engaging in the “practice of equivocation and mutable morality”.  A Globe editorial points out that “[t]he Charter protects the[] freedom to dispute the contents of the constitution and its interpretation by the courts”, and that the government’s position “that arguing against a right is as bad as infringing it” is “chilling”. Writing for Policy Options, Brian Bird sums up the issue by noting that the government “has weaponized the Charter, using it as a sword against nonconforming citizens”, instead of the “shield for citizens against the abuse of state power” that it is supposed to be.

All this, I think, is correct. Much like the Law Society of Ontario’s “Statement of Principles” requirement, the “attestation” is a values test that conditions eligibility for a public benefit on the would-be recipient’s agreement with the government. It is an obvious instance of compelled speech and, more importantly, an interference with freedom of conscience. The government cannot ask people to profess or to express particular beliefs, even as a condition of providing a benefit. The Charter was meant to break what Steven Smith (the law and religion scholar, not to be confused with Stephen Smith, the contract theorist) recently described as “the centuries-old pattern in which governments have attempted to compel dissenters or outliers to publicly affirm and acquiesce to the dominant orthodoxy” ― the government’s attempt to invoke it to perpetuate this pattern notwithstanding.

In one of the few attempts to defend the government that I have seen, Dale Smith notes that governments always channel public funding to  causes and groups whose morality they approve of, and away from others. That much is true ― and worthy of condemnation. But Mr. Smith is missing a couple of important distinctions. For one thing, there’s a difference between a completely discretionary decision to allocate funding this way or that, and using a values test to deny funding to a beneficiary who otherwise meets set criteria on which everyone is judged. And second, I think that, as Prof. Smith suggests, there is something particularly odious about governments, not content with discriminating against citizens for their views, demanding that citizens also actively express or endorse beliefs that they do not hold.

And as for the government’s claims ― supported by Daphne Gilbert in an Ottawa Citizen op-ed ― that the objectors misunderstand the attestation, they simply ignore the fact that, when it comes to religious (and, I have argued, conscientious) obligations, the state cannot tell people what theirs are. If a religious group cannot dissociate its “core mandate” from its anti-abortionist stance, neither Professor Gilbert, nor Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, nor Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is entitled to tell it that it ought to be less scrupulous.

I’d like to add a few more points which I mostly have not seen made in other critiques of the federal government’s position. The first concerns the meaning and scope of the “attestation”. While a few rights are singled out ― a point to which I will return shortly ―, on its face the “attestation” requires the support of “individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights”. What does this even mean? Quite clearly, the rights one is required to support are not limited to Charter rights, but some “other” ones as well. So how about some other non-Charter protected rights? For instance, must applicants to the Summer Jobs Programme support property rights (which, though not in the Charter, are part and parcel of Canadian law)? And then, of course, there is the question of “Charter values”, which Justices Lauwers and Miller recently noted in Gehl v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 ONCA 319 , “are not a discrete set, like Charter rights, which were the product of a constitutional settlement and are easily ascertained by consulting a constitutional text”,  [80] and which, moreover, “can easily be in conflict”. [82] In other words, the government is asking people to “attest” to their support of an indeterminate and indeterminable set of potentially contradictory rights and “values”. This is contrary not only to the freedom of conscience, but also to the principle of the Rule of Law.

All that said, while the “attestation” is seemingly extraordinarily broad, it is obvious that its true purpose has to do with the government’s support with a fairly narrow set of equality and reproductive rights described as being “at the core of” its policy. (By the way, how “core” are these things to the government’s “mandate”, actually? I’d say that they are pretty tangential to most of what it does; the government may disagree, but this of course only makes more pressing the question of how the government thinks it can define for others what their “core mandate” is.) Mr. Ivison is right to describe this approach as constructing a “hierarchy of rights”. Reproductive and equality rights are at the top; their advancement is the government’s priority. In the middle, a vast number of unknown “other rights” are ostensibly important too, but the government doesn’t seem to care about them very much. And at the bottom, as Mr. Ivison says, are those rights ― like freedom of conscience ― that get in the way of its agenda. The reason I dwell on this, though, is that this is not the first time the government has done something like this. In the context of the Court Challenges Programme, of the celebrations of constitutional anniversaries, and of proposed legislation supposed to foster Parliament’s engagement with the constitution, the government plays favourites with constitutional provisions, playing up its commitment to some while ignoring others. The government is treating the constitution not as a binding constraint, but as a political prop, to be used in order to advance its agenda, ignored when unnecessary, and overridden when inconvenient.

My concluding observations concern the reasons the government got into this mess, and the way we might avoid repetitions in the future. We have come to accept the idea, of which Lord Acton warned as a great danger in his Lectures on Modern History, of the “[g]overnment [as] the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man”. (289) In its role as promoter of wealth, the government  decides to subsidize youth employment ― having first made young people unemployable thanks to minimum wage laws that don’t account for their lack of skill and experience enacted in its capacity of guardian of morality. And then, since it is also the intellectual guide of the nation and the mainspring of progress, the government decides to use subsidies as an occasion to inculcate the proper understanding of (some) rights to those who want to receive them. As Lord Acton realized, such a government must be oppressive; it “governs, and all other things obey”. (289) While much of the criticism of the “attestation” is couched in partisan terms, as if it were a peculiarly Liberal pathology, the truth is that the view of government from which its imposition results is shared by all of the principal federal and provincial political parties, and indeed by most of the critics. To be sure, the existence of the criticism shows that one need not be a fire-breathing classical liberal to oppose government overreach. But unless we recover something of Lord Acton’s suspicion of governmental beneficence we will never do more than fight rear-guard battles against its encroachments; we will never allow ourselves to strike back at its ineradicable tendency to overreach.

Whether groups that receive funding under the Summer Jobs Programme support (its interpretation of) human rights is none of the government’s business. Citizens are not obliged to support rights ― only to respect them to the extent that they are reflected in laws that bind them, which must be clear enough for the citizens to understand what it is that they must do. It is the government’s job to comply with the constitution ― all of it, and not just the bits it likes. But to keep the government to its proper sphere, we must first remember what that sphere is.

Losing Our Way

Neither “society’s tolerance” nor the “captive audience” doctrine justify censorship of anti-abortion ads

Over at ABlawg, Ola Malik has a post praising the decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s bench in Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform v Grande Prairie (City), 2016 ABQB 734. I have been scathing of that decision here, and I believe that Mr. Malik is wrong. His posts illustrates the sort of thinking, which is also at work in the Court of Queen’s bench decision, that will, if unchecked, render freedom of expression an empty phrase in Canada. Contrary to what Justice Anderson and Mr. Malik believe, it is not, and it cannot be, the state’s job to protect citizens from any discomforting ideas that might come their way.

By way of reminder, the decision at issue allowed a municipality to censor ads that an anti-abortionist group sought to post on the outside of its buses. In the court’s view, this decision was reasonable because the ads targeted a captive audience that could not help but see them, and because they risked causing upset and even harm, both because they featured the word “killing” and because they referred to a website that made derogatory statements about women who had abortions. In my post, I said that this “reasoning is disturbing if not perverse”, notably because it could be applied to censor any strongly expressed message (though it is, of course, rather more likely to be applied to “politically incorrect” views than, say to Oxfam’s or Amnesty International’s ads).

By contrast, Mr. Malik, a municipal prosecutor, is very happy about a decision that is “most helpful to municipalities seeking to limit the placement of controversial advocacy messaging in public places”. He claims that

speech which targets certain groups of people, especially those who are otherwise exercising their legal rights (in this case, women seeking abortions) cannot be said to promote the objectives which underlie freedom of expression.

He argues that Justice Anderson is right to have “endorsed the captive audience doctrine”, since the corollary of the freedom to speak is the freedom not to hear unwanted speech. Mr. Malik adds that “[h]ad the advertisement been … ‘merely informative and educational’, [77] the Court may have been less prepared to use the captive audience doctrine.” But the ad in question was actually harmful, and the Court, says Mr. Malik, was right so to find: “the Court recognized that hateful or offensive expressive activity in a prominent public space can have a harmful psychological impact on the well-being of civil society”. Mr. Malik cautions, however, that such findings “need[] to be arrived at with care”, so as to avoid “underestimating society’s tolerance for controversial and provocative messaging. And”, he says, “we need to be mindful that a test which references community harm doesn’t turn into a test of community censorship”.

With respect, community censorship ― or, more accurately, censorship by bureaucrats and judges purporting to act on the community’s behalf ― is precisely what Mr. Malik supports, whether or not he intends to do so. Freedom of speech is, among other things, te freedom to engage in “controversial advocacy messaging in public spaces”. It is, among other things, the freedom to criticize “certain groups of people”, including people “who are otherwise exercising their legal rights” ― to have an abortion, to eat meat, to minimize tax liabilities, to fail to give to charity, what have you. The law is not the measure of morality, and in a free society what is moral ― as well as what is legal ― is an appropriate subject for public debate and criticism. The issue is not just that, by allowing bureaucrats and judges to stifle debate and silence criticism, we might “underestimat[e] society’s tolerance”. It’s that the extent of society’s tolerance cannot be the measure of the freedom of expression that its members enjoy. If it had been otherwise, slavery would still be legal, homosexuality would not, and women would still be denied the vote. Advances in human rights are rarely achieved entirely within society’s comfort zone.

A few observations on the concept of a captive audience, of which Mr. Malik makes much, are also in order. As I said in my first post, the idea that people who see buses in the street are a captive audience unable to avoid the message communicated by the ads posted on these buses is preposterous. If the state is able to censor any message merely because someone might be unwittingly confronted with it for a few moments, the state can censor anything at all. Unsurprisingly, this is not what the cases to which Mr. Malik refers, and those to which he doesn’t, hold.

The case to which he ascribes “the most comprehensive treatment of the captive audience doctrine” in Canada,  R v Breeden, 2009 BCCA 463, does not turn on the application of this doctrine at all, but on the question whether a person can be prevented from protesting at very specific locations (namely the lobby of a courthouse and that of a municipal council building) that were not, historically or currently, normally used for such expression. (This alone would suffice to distinguish the case from that of bus advertising even if the case really did support Mr. Malik’s use of it. But it does not.) In fact, to the extent that Breeden has relevance for the issue of captive audiences, its import is precisely the opposite of what Mr. Malik takes it to be. Justice Hall, writing for the unanimous court, pointed out that

[i]t was not suggested in this case that he express himself to a different group of people, rather simply that he change the location of his activity to the sidewalk area outside the buildings, where he would have access to the same potential audience. [27; emphasis mine]

The ability to communicate with “the same potential audience” was a crucial reason was the restriction on the place where this communication could take place was upheld.

As for the American jurisprudence, it is no more supportive of Mr. Malik’s position than Breeden. Mr. Malik quotes from the case of Lehman v City of Shaker Heights, 418 US 298 (1974); he does not say that the opinion he is quoting is a concurrence, by Justice Douglas, which would have found that all advertisement in buses ― not on their outside, mind you, so that the case for the proposition that the audience is a captive one is significantly stronger ― are an infringement of the commuters’ rights. Justice Douglas would not have allowed the city that owned the buses to pick and choose ads that were uncontroversial or harmless. On the contrary, he did

not view the content of the message as relevant either to petitioner’s right to express it or to the commuters’ right to be free from it. Commercial advertisements may be as offensive and intrusive to captive audiences as any political message. (308)

In any case, Justice Douglas was alone in this view. Justice Blackmun’s opinion (with the support of three others) referred to the issue of captive audiences, but only as one reason among several for which the city could reasonably have chosen to prohibit political advertising but not the commercial sort. Another such reason, it is worth noting, is “minimiz[ing] … the appearance of favoritism”. (304) The decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, and Mr. Malik’s arguments, do no such thing ― they do not say that the municipality wanted to, or would or ought to have, banned pro-choice ads as well as anti-abortion ones. As for the for the other opinion in Lehman, that of Justice Brennan, it would have found content-based decisions about which advertising to allow unconstitutional.

Let me mention another American case, which Mr. Malik ignores: Cohen v California, 403 US 15 (1971), the famous “Fuck the draft” decision. That slogan was emblazoned on a jacket that the appellant had worn in a courthouse, and Justice Harlan, for the unanimous court, wrote that

in arguments … much has been made of the claim that Cohen’s distasteful mode of expression was thrust upon unwilling or unsuspecting viewers, and that the State might therefore legitimately [punish him] in order to protect the sensitive from otherwise unavoidable exposure to appellant’s crude form of protest. (21)

But, Justice Harlan responded,

[o]f course, the mere presumed presence of unwitting listeners or viewers does not serve automatically to justify curtailing all speech capable of giving offense. … Those [confronted with Cohen’s jacket] could effectively avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes. (21)

Mr. Malik, Justice Anderson, and anyone else inclined to agree with them would do well to study that opinion, and to take Justice Harlan’s advice to heart.

As Edmund Burke wrote long ago,”[t]he great inlet by which the colour for oppression entered into the world is by one man’s pretending to determine concerning the happiness of another”. This too is something that our would-be censors, who would determine concerning our happiness, or, in modern jargon ― since we have learned the words, without embracing the ideas, of John Stuart Mill ― protect us from harm, would do well to ponder. That a prosecutor, like Mr. Malik, supports censorship is disappointing; that a judge, like Justice Anderson, endorses it is distressing; but if our fellow-citizens were to agree with them, that indeed would be dispiriting.

Aborting Freedom of Expression

If a city can censor anti-abortion ads to prevent hurt feelings, is there anything that could not be censored?

The decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform v Grande Prairie (City), 2016 ABQB 734 was issued before the holidays, and was reported on in the media earlier this month, but it has only recently become available on CanLII, and it’s worth a comment. Justice Anderson upheld, as reasonable under the framework for reviewing administrative decisions challenged for contravening the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms developed by the Supreme Court, the decision of the city of Grande Prairie to deny an anti-abortion organization the opportunity to run ads on the city’s buses. She was wrong to do so, and her decision, if it is upheld or followed, will have grave consequences for freedom of expression in Canada.

* * *

Justice Anderson’s description of the ad in question is worth reproducing in full (perhaps with a Posnerian lament about the absence of pictures in legal texts):

The ad contains three images: the first of a fetus at approximately 7 weeks development, the second of a fetus at approximately 16 weeks development, and the third a blank red circle with no image. Under the first image is the caption “7-weeks GROWING”, under the second image the caption states “16-weeks GROWING” and inside the third blank image is the word “GONE”. To the right of the images is the statement “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN” followed by a web address “ENDTHEKILLING.ca” and the name of the organization behind the ad. [5; emphasis in Justice Anderson’s reasons ― it is not clear whether it was also in the ad itself]

Justice Anderson notes that, at the time, “the City’s Transit Manager, Jason Henry, explained that City buses are taxpayer funded vehicles and that ‘this ad would be disturbing to people within our community'”. [8] The City’s asserted reasons for banning the proposed ad would change later on, however, “to ensur[ing] that hateful expression” ― indeed “hate propaganda” ― “was curtailed to protect the public from the harmful effects of such expression”. [45] The City also required advertising on its buses to comply with the  Canadian Code of Advertising Standards which “states among other requirements that ads shall not demean, denigrate or disparage one or more identifiable persons, or group of persons”. [46]

The way to assess the validity of administrative decisions said to contravene the Charter ― the freedom of expression guarantee of section 2(b) in this case ― was set out by the Supreme Court in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395. There, Justice Abella explained that “[i]f, in exercising its statutory discretion, the decision-maker has properly balanced the relevant Charter value with the statutory objectives, the decision will be found to be reasonable” [58] and thus valid. However, as Paul Daly explains, the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613 (about which I have written here) suggests “that there is little difference between Doré reasonableness” and ordinary Charter analysis.

Justice Anderson concluded that

the statutory objective of controlling the content of advertising on City buses is to provide a safe and welcoming transit system, as part of the municipality’s responsibility … to provide services and develop and maintain a safe and viable community. [51]

This objective was agreed to be important enough (in keeping with the Supreme Court’s decision in Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students — British Columbia Component, 2009 SCC 31, [2009] 2 SCR 295, which considered the constitutionality of a policy prohibiting all political advertising on city buses ― and eventually found it unconstitutional). “The question”, Justice Anderson observed, “is whether the City limited the [anti-abortionists’] right to expression no more than was necessary in pursuit of the statutory objective”. [53]

Justice Anderson found that this was indeed the case. It mattered, in her view, that “a bus exterior is a location where it is almost impossible to avoid the expression” [68] ― one cannot just move and look away. Moreover, “ads on city buses are viewed in very close proximity by those who have no other means of transportation [and] by other users of the road”. [69] In short, these ads target a captive audience. As a result, they can be more narrowly regulated than other forms of expression, so as to protect “vulnerable groups”, notably “children”, who can in other cases be prevented from witnessing “upsetting images and phrases”. [72] Justice Anderson also insists that the infringement of the freedom of expression “was limited to the rejection of this particular ad. The City did not state that abortion related ads would not be permitted, nor did it preclude the [anti-abortionists] from bringing forward a different ad”. [74] She explains that she has “gone beyond the ad in this case”, looking at the website which it references, and found there “strong statements that vilify women who have chosen, for their own reasons, to have an abortion; [these statements] are not merely informative and educational”. [80] The City, Justice Anderson concluded, is entitled “to protect the general public, including children, from the harm caused by what many members of the public would view as disturbing expression in an exceedingly public space”, [81] whether or not it amounted hate speech:

[T]he ad is likely to cause psychological harm to women who have had an abortion or who are considering an abortion. It is also likely to cause fear and confusion among children who may not fully understand what the ad is trying to express. They may not be familiar with the word abortion, but they can read and understand that “something” kills children. Expression of this kind may lead to emotional responses from the various people who make use of public transit and other users of the road, creating a hostile and uncomfortable environment. [82]

Justice Anderson also briefly considered, and rejected, a number of arguments based on purely administrative law principles, but I will not discuss that portion of her reasons here.

* * *

Justice Anderson’s reasoning is disturbing if not perverse. Her claim that bus advertising is somehow impossible not to look at is odd. It is certainly not consistent with Justice Deschamps’ reasoning for the Supreme Court’s majority in Greater Vancouver, which ― although it did raise the possibility that some forms of expression might be curtailed due to concerns about their audience, did not find that bus advertising was of that nature. Her claim that a different ad could have been allowed is close to mockery ― there is no reason to think that the City would have allowed another anti-abortion ad; it certainly suggested no such thing. The ad at issue was not gruesome, violent, or explicitly derogatory of anyone; this is why Justice Anderson felt the need to “go beyond” it to support her conclusions. Quite apart from the question whether rules of judicial notice authorized her to do so, as she claims they did, the rather obvious fact is that her captive audience argument, whatever its value, does not work once one has to go “beyond” the message that the purportedly captive audience sees. Justice Anderson might not think so, but no one has go on a website just because it is mentioned in an ad. As for claims of psychological harm, Justice Anderson does not even pretend to support them with a shred of evidence. She simply makes them up.

But consider what will happen to freedom of expression in Canada if different strands of this reasoning are adopted as part of our law. It is difficult to see how Justice Anderson’s bizarre views on what makes for a captive audience do not apply to forms of advertising other than ads on bus sides ― large billboards, for example ― which could then also be censored if found to contain “upsetting images and phrases”. Censorship could be imposed on the basis of vague concepts, such as whether something is “upsetting” or “psychologically harmful” ― according, not to some scientific definition, but to the whim of a bureaucrat or a judge. Indeed, a message could be censored not only because it contains “upsetting images and phrases”, but because it leads its audience ― or a bureaucrat or judge ― to some other upsetting message. In more concrete terms, an Oxfam ad depicting an emaciated child, or an Amnesty International ad stating that “Torture disappears only when you do something about it” could be banned from public view because they contain “upsetting images” or words, or because they would cause “psychological harm” to those who do nothing to help about starving children or abused prisoners.

* * *

But, you might say, of course these ads won’t be banned. They might be upsetting, but in a good way. But that’s a subjective viewpoint. And while abortion is legal in Canada while torture is not (though failing to do anything about torture in other countries is certainly legal too), a free society tolerates appeals for the law to be changed, and for previously legal behaviours to be outlawed. The debate about abortion is not going to go away censoring one side of it. If anything, seeing the state take the side of their opponents will only make anti-abortionists more radical and uncompromising.

And beyond this specific debate, there are other disagreements in society, which sometimes cause people to speak in bitter and upsetting terms about each other. A free society is not a safe space in which authorities protect people from having their precious feelings hurt. Justice Anderson does not understand this. I can only hope that other Canadian judges still do.

Rule and Exemption

Here’s something that has been bothering me since I’ve recently re-read the Supreme Court’s decisions in R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30 and in the Insite case, Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society, 2011 SCC 44, [2011] 3 S.C.R. 134. The two cases dealt with different topics: the former is about abortion; the latter, about a safe injection clinic for drug addicts. But the statutory regimes at issue in both had a similar structure ― a general prohibition (on abortion and on possession of drugs, respectively), coupled with the possibility of authorities granting exemptions from these general prohibitions. In both cases, the Supreme Court concluded that the general prohibitions engaged the right to the “security of the person” protected by section 7 of the Charter. But the way it determined whether the statutes were contrary to “the principles of fundamental justice” and this infringed section 7 was very different.

In Morgentaler, the majority of the Court focused on the operation of the statutory scheme and concluded that because the exemption granting process was over-complicated, long, and uncertain ― when it was available at all ― the scheme itself was contrary to the principles of fundamental justice. In the Insite case, by contrast, the unanimous Court had nothing at all to say about the way the exemption-granting process functioned (or, as the evidence perhaps suggested, did not function), and instead chose to review the Minister’s exercise of discretion within that process, which it found constitutionally wanting. Accordingly, instead of finding the whole statutory scheme invalid, it ordered the Minister to grant Insite an exemption. The equivalent decision on Morgentaler would have been to say that  every decision as to allow a woman who asked for an abortion would have to comply, and subject to review for compliance, with the Charter. Why the difference?

One reason that comes to mind is that both the activities at issue and the exemption-granting processes involved in the two cases were actually quite different. With abortion, time is of the essence ― delays in the exemption-granting process were not only psychologically distressing, but also increased the danger of the procedure for the women who were ultimately granted the exemption. And the decision on whether to grant one was made by committees of physicians, who presumably had little if any understanding of the relevant constitutional principles. More delay, including delay for judicial review, might be tolerable in the case of exemptions from drug laws, and the decisions are made by a government official who is, in theory anyway, supposed to be mindful of constitutional concerns.

Another possibility is that the two decisions were different because the two cases were argued differently and, in particular, because the evidence available was different. Morgentaler arose out of charges brought against doctors. It didn’t involve a woman who had applied for and been denied an exemption. The focus was accordingly on the way the entire statutory regime functioned, rather than on an individual application. And, importantly, there was a great deal of evidence about how the that regime worked for the many thousands of women (and their doctors) who needed to use it. Insite, meanwhile, was a challenge by a clinic that had applied for and been denied the exemption. There was a lot of evidence about the effects which that one decision would have on Insite’s users, but not about the way in which Ministers of Health handled the exemption process. Indeed, if I understand correctly, there could have been no such evidence, since Insite was unique.

Which is it, though? This isn’t just an academic question. If the second explanation is correct, then it is easy enough to imagine a challenge to the Canadian drug laws being framed to be more like Morgentaler ― an attack on the ministerial decision-making process itself. The government would presumably argue that the Minister is guided by and applies the Charter. But suppose that a few groups went through that process unsuccessfully and could show that Charter concerns were, in fact, ignored; or perhaps that the process just takes too much time and is too uncertain. It might not be an easy case to make, but it may be worth trying.

Of course, this brings to mind the further question, which Justice Wilson raised, but her colleagues in the majority refused to address, in Morgentaler ― whether any exemption process in ever constitutionally adequate. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Insite case suggests that it believes so. But if it can be shown that legalization would likely reduce “the health risks of injection drug use are caused by unsanitary practices and equipment, and not by the drugs themselves” (Insite, [93]), this would arguably amount to a difference in the available evidence that would, under the test developed in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101 and Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, allow courts to revisit that conclusion.

The A-Word

Why is it that we cannot have a sane conversation if the word ‘abortion’ comes up? It is a difficult moral issue of course, but so are others, from the death penalty to the balance governments must strike between freedom and equality, or freedom and security. Yet although debate on these issues is often heated, it seldom degenerates so much  as any public discussion about abortion quickly does.

Latest case in point, the debate on the motion presented by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to re-open debate about abortion in Parliament, on which the Globe reports here. Mr. Woodworth’s own rhetoric is of the worst you’re-with-us-or-you-like-pedophiles kind; he claims that those who disagree with his view that abortion should be criminalized “see the child as an object and an obstacle, even a parasite.” But his opponents are no better. Both the opposition and the government Whip, Gordon O’Connor, invoke the spectre of back alley abortions, of women having “no choice” and being driven to “desperation” (in the words of former MP and Senator Lucie Pépin, in her appeal to sign a petition created by the Liberal Party.

Much of the petition’s actual wording is a misrepresentation. It claims that “In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled: ‘The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.'” The reference is obviously to R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30. Only, the language quoted does not appear in the decision―it is lifted from the headnote. More importantly, it is a summary of the concurring opinion of Justice Wilson, the only one who probably thought there was a constitutional right to abortion in all circumstances; the two plurality opinions (each supported by two judges) struck down the abortion provisions on narrower grounds, and left the door open to Parliamentary reconsideration.*

But we are told now that even talking about it would lead to horrors that “should never happen in a civilized society” (Mr. O’Connor). Really? Nordic countries are usually thought of as models of social liberalism and gender equality. Yet all of them make abortion illegal at some stage in the pregnancy. (My source is, alas, Wikipedia… I do hope it is reliable on this.) Norway―which imposes a 40% minimum female membership requirement on its corporations’ boards of directors―allows abortion on demand for only 12 weeks, and on application (which is almost always granted) until the 18th week of the pregnancy. In Sweden, abortion on demand is allowed until the 18th week, but only in very exceptional circumstances afterwards. In Denmark, abortion on demand is allowed for 12 weeks. And―though I stand to be corrected―I haven’t heard horror stories of back alley abortions in these countries we often look up to.

Of course this may well be a case where we should not be looking up to them. Perhaps they get it wrong, and the current Canadian state of affairs is right. But how can we know this if we are not allowed to have a conversation that includes the A-word?

* I have written to the LPC about this. I will update if and when I get an answer. UPDATE: I never got one.