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.

The $100 Question, in Court

A challenge to Québec’s harsh limits on political contributions has a decent chance of succeeding

As reported last week by Le Soleil, a citizen of Québec, Yvon Maheux, is challenging the constitutionality of both the province’s $100 yearly cap on donations to political parties and some of the collateral consequences of a conviction for infringing this cap. In my view, much of the claim has considerable merit, and at least a reasonable chance of success. As I wrote when Québec was first considering lowering the amount its citizens were allowed to contribute to political parties from $1000 to $100, such a low limit is quite clearly unconstitutional, given the Supreme Court’s recognition that spending money to advance one’s political views is a form of expression that is entitled to the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As Mr. Maheux’s notice of constitutional question (kindly provided to me by his lawyer, Antoine Sarrazin-Bourgouin, whom I thank) explains, in 2016 he paid a provincial party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, $100 for taking part in a breakfast it organized, and then another $100 as a fee to take part in the party congress. For his trouble, he was prosecuted for breaching the $100 yearly cap on donations to political parties, provided for by section 91 of Québec’s Election Act. Section 564.2 of that Act provides that, if convicted, Mr. Maheux will face a minimum fine of $5000. Moreover, the infringement of the contribution cap is deemed a corrupt electoral practice (section 567), meaning that a conviction carries a number of additional consequences ― notably the disqualification from voting or running for office, as well as the loss of “the right to engage in partisan work”, both for five years (section 568).

This is a draconian regime. For one thing, the contribution limit is remarkably low. For another, the consequences for breaching it are astonishingly severe. Neither the Canada Elections Act nor Ontario’s Election Finance Act, for example, impose a mandatory minimum punishment for financial offences; nor do they deem making an excessive contribution a corrupt practice; nor do either Parliament or Ontario strip persons convicted of corrupt practices of their “right to engage in partisan work”. New Zealand ― which of course does not limit contributions to political parties at all, and is the least corrupt country in the world nonetheless ― does nothing of the sort either.

But does draconian, in this instance, also mean unconstitutional? The cases raises a number of distinct constitutional issues. The first is whether the infringement of the freedom of expression effected by the limitation of contributions one can make to a political party is justified under section 1 of the Charter. (That the limitation is a prima facie infringement of the freedom of expression must follow from the Supreme Court’s decisions in Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 and Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although these cases concerned spending independent of parties.) The other issues have to do with the constitutionality of the various consequences of a conviction for breaching the contribution limit.

Regarding the constitutionality of the limit itself, there is no precedent directly on point, I think, but it seems to me that the Québec government will be hard-pressed to show that it is minimally impairing of the freedom of expression. A legislature is entitled to some, perhaps considerable, deference in a line-drawing exercise of this sort ― Libman and Harper indicate that the courts will accept that there ought to be some limit on contributions, and any given figure is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Still, deference can only extend so far; there is a range of acceptable alternatives, but this range is not infinite. And even if a higher limit would (of course) be somewhat less likely to attain the legislation’s anti-corruption objectives, the issue, as Chief Justice McLachlin’s majority opinion … put it, is only “whether there is an alternative, less drastic means of achieving the objective in a real and substantial manner“. That no other jurisdiction in Canada (and perhaps elsewhere) has seen it fit to set a contribution limit anywhere near this low is a strong indication that Québec’s purposes can be substantially achieved through less drastic means.

The $100 limit also fails, I think, at the final stage of the section 1 analysis, which concerns proportionality between the rights limitation’s benefits and its effects on the rights claimants. These effects, in this case, are significant; indeed, the limit renders Quebeckers’ right to contribute financially to a political party of their choice virtually nugatory. Mr. Maheux’s personal story is an eloquent illustration of this fact. So is the simple arithmetic that shows that a donation of $2 a week would be illegal. This all is particularly galling because the Supreme Court’s law of democracy jurisprudence ― especially Harper but also, before it, Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912 ― suggested that participating in the activities of political parties was  political participation par excellence, to be valued and protected above others, as I explained here. Québec’s restrictive approach to political financing means that individuals such as Mr. Maheux can be prevented from developing their engagement with political parties, even as they are also prevented from participating in political debates as “third parties”, by spending money on advertising during electoral campaigns. Politics in Québec risks becoming even more of an insider activity ― ostensibly in the name of a fight against corruption. This makes no sense to me.

As for the consequences of conviction, there are three distinct issues. The first one is whether the disenfranchisement of those convicted, which is an obvious infringement of the right to vote protected by section 3 of the Charter, can be justified under section 1. In Harvey v New Brunswick (Attorney General), [1996] 2 SCR 876, the Supreme Court upheld the disenfranchisement, for five years, of a member of a provincial legislature who had been convicted of trying to induce a person who was not entitled to vote to do so. Harvey was, of course, decided before Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, which struck down the general disenfranchisement of prisoners serving sentences of two years or more, but I don’t think that Sauvé calls it into question. The Harvey court accepted that the temporary disenfranchisement of those convicted of corrupt electoral practices was a proportionate way of pursuing the specific purpose of protecting the integrity of elections, with which the general disenfranchisement provisions at issue in Sauvé had nothing to do.

That said, accepting that legislatures can disenfranchise people who compromise the integrity of the democratic process, the question is how far this principle extends. We wouldn’t accept, I think, the disenfranchisement of people who negligently infringe some technical rule about the reporting of a candidate’s expenses. But, again, how do we ― and, more to the point, how does a court ― draw lines? Again, I am not aware of judicial guidance on this point, but looking at what other jurisdictions do is instructive. The lists offences that are labelled as corrupt (or illegal) practices and can lead to disenfranchisement are not identical, but both federally (in section 502 of the Canada Elections Act) and in Ontario (in section 97.1 of the Election Act) the focus is on interference with the composition of electorate (involving voting under various false pretenses or, conversely, preventing electors from voting), or the process of casting ballots. An individual exceeding contribution limits is not deemed guilty of a corrupt practice. Although it is far from certain that the Charter prohibits this, there is, I think, at least a viable argument to be made for this proposition.

The next, related, issue is whether it is permissible not only to disenfranchise a person found guilty of having engaged in some form of corrupt practice, but also to deny him or her the “right to engage in partisan work”. As mentioned above, I do not think that any Canadian jurisdiction except Québec does it; I don’t know if any other democratic country does. The prohibition is an obvious infringement of the Charter freedoms of expression and of association. Can it be justified? Once more, I am not aware of judicial decisions directly on point, but it is possible to venture a few observations. One is that Québec is deliberately targeting political expression and association, which are at the heart of the Charter‘s protections. Another is that it’s not obvious how a ban on “partisan work” is connected to the integrity of the electoral process as such, or even of the political financing regime; at the very least it is seriously overbroad, because much of what might be fairly described as “partisan work” ― a term that Québec’s Election Act does not define, but uses in a number of provisions that suggest that it should be given a broad meaning ― has nothing to do with with either voting or fundraising. Third, once again the experience of other jurisdictions suggests that Québec’s ban is not minimally impairing, and indeed that it is likely quite unnecessary. And fourth, given its breadth, the ban’s deleterious effects on those subject to it surely outweigh whatever social benefits it might be said to have.

Finally, in his notice of constitutional question, Mr. Maheux indicates that he will argue that the cumulative effect of these various sanctions ― not any of them individually, mind you ― amounts to a violation of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments in section 12 of the Charter. The test here is whether the punishment is grossly disproportionate, compared to the one that would have been appropriate in the circumstances. This is of course a highly subjective assessment, and I am pretty skeptical of this claim as a standalone ground for constitutional challenge. If a court grants Mr. Maheux’s claims under sections 2 and 3 of the Charter, it is superfluous to consider the section 12 argument. If it thinks that the infringements of sections 2 and 3 are individually justified, I can’t imagine it holding that collectively they are grossly disproportionate; this would strike me as an odd result.

Be that as it may, Mr. Maheux’s challenge is mostly serious and, while we lack specific, on-point guidance from the courts because the provisions of Québec’s Election Act at which it is aimed are so unique, I think it has at least a reasonable chance of success ― perhaps even a very good one. At the level of political morality, the legislation that Mr. Maheux is attacking is indefensible. It is vastly more repressive than it needs to be, and appears to have been enacted in complete disregard of the rights of those affected by it (as well as of the desirability of a competitive political system). I hope that the law recalls Québec’s legislature both to its constitutional duties and to its senses.

Ceci est-il une conversation?

The Supreme Court holds we can expect our text messages to remain private, even on other people`s phones

Last week, the Supreme Court released its eagerly-awaited judgment in R v Marakah, 2017 SCC 59, holding that a person had standing to challenge the admissibility of text messages to which he was a party but which the police had seized from another’s cell phone. The Chief Justice wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Abella, Karakatsanis, and Gascon concurred. Justice Rowe wrote a brief concurrence, raising some concerns about the future implications of the majority opinion, with which he nevertheless agreed. Justice Moldaver, with the agreement of Justice Côté, wrote a fierce, strongly-worded dissent.

Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “[e]veryone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure”.  This right applies when a person has an objectively reasonable “expectation of privacy” in the thing or information that is the object of the search or seizure. There is no question that Mr Marakah wanted and expected his exchange of text messages with an accomplice in a weapons-trafficking venture to remain private. But was he entitled to expect that the police would not read these messages on that accomplice’s phone?

The majority and Justice Rowe think that he was. As the Chief Justice put it, the

interconnected web of devices and servers creates an electronic world of digital communication that, in the 21st century, is every bit as real as physical space. The millions of us who text friends, family, and acquaintances may each be viewed as having appropriated a corner of this electronic space for our own purposes. There, we seclude ourselves and convey our private messages, just as we might use a room in a home or an office to talk behind closed doors. [28]

The information exchanged in these nooks and crannies of cyberspace is, potentially, highly private, and indeed “[i]ndividuals may even have an acute privacy interest in the fact of their electronic communications”. [33] Crucially,

this zone of privacy extends beyond one’s own mobile device; it can include the electronic conversations in which one shares private information with others. It is reasonable to expect these private interactions — and not just the contents of a particular cell phone at a particular point in time — to remain private. [37]

The fact that we might not control all the devices through which this information is accessible is not especially important. It is the information exchanged, the conversation, that is the subject of the expectation of privacy, not whatever device might allow one it view it. And even the fact the person with whom one is texting could disclose the fact or the content of the conversation does not allow the state to read it.

Justice Moldaver disagrees. For him, control is a key factor in the analysis. Justice Moldaver writes that “the reasonableness of a person’s expectation of privacy depends on the nature and strength of that person’s connection to the subject matter of the search”, and “[w]here an individual lacks any measure of control, this serves as a compelling indicator that an expectation of personal privacy is unreasonable”. [98] Justice Moldaver gives a number of examples: DNA in one’s body is private, but DNA traces left on, say, the body of a victim of a crime are not; thoughts recorded in a private diary are private, but not those publicly shared online. [116] While control does not require ownership or exclusivity of access, a lack of control means that information is not in a meaningful sense private.

When it comes to conversations, including conversations conducted by text messaging, Justice Moldaver is of the view that one loses control over what one has said once one has said it. What one’s interlocutor’s phone records is “an independent record”, [128] similar to the notes one might make after a spoken conversation, and within the interlocutor’s exclusive control. Evesdropping on an ongoing conversation, or intercepting text messages as they are being sent, violates a reasonable expectation of privacy. By contrast, just as each party to a conservation is free to share a record or recollection of it, and his or her interlocutor can (subject to any applicable privacy legislation) have no reasonable expectation of privacy in that record, so it is also with a “record” of a conversation conducted via text messaging.

Here, as I see it, is one important point of disagreement between the majority and the dissent. Both are ostensibly agreed that what Mr. Marakah had, or lacked, a reasonable expectation of privacy — or, in other words, “the subject matter of the search was Mr. Marakah’s ‘electronic conversation’ with” his accomplice. [17; 111] But it seems to me that while the majority does indeed approach the case as one about the privacy of a conversation, the dissent sees it as being not about a conversation as such, but rather about a record of a conversation. To repeat, Justice Moldaver accepts that “an electronic conversation” would be private; it could not be intercepted without due authorization. But the messages stored in the cell phone of one of the parties to the conversation are not the same thing. They are like the notes one of the interlocutors took. (Hence the title of this, in reference to René Magritte’s notorious The Treachery of Images, a.k.a. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.) As Justice Moldaver suggests, we can expect not to be eavesdropped on, when having a private conversation, but not necessarily that the contents of that conversation will never be revealed to third parties. So the majority decision makes sense in light of how it understood the issue, and the dissent makes sense in light of its author’s different understanding of the case.

But which of them is correct? I personally find this a very difficult question. A number of legal issues arising out of new technologies, broadly speaking, has to do with the erasure of the once-clear line between the spoken and the written word. The former was (usually) spontaneous and fleeting; the latter (relatively) deliberate and permanent. But electronic communications combine spontaneity and permanence in a way to which many of us are still only getting used and with which the legal system, unsurprisingly, struggles. One of my very early posts, for instance, was about a case that concerned an attempt by a university to punish students who ranted about their professor on Facebook. Student rants about a professor are nothing new, but the fact that they were made online rather than over beers left a record for the authorities to look into and to try (unsuccessfully in the event) suppressing. In a different way, the disagreement about the way to characterize text messaging “conversations” — often created in a spontaneous way, as if the parties were together in the same room, but a permanent record for the police to look at later — exemplifies the same set of difficulties. (This might come out most clearly in Justice Rowe’s brief concurrence.) On balance, though, I am inclined to think that Justice Moldaver’s view makes more sense. The idea of a never-finished conversation, to which one is always an ongoing party, and in which one is permanently entitled to expected privacy, which seems implicit in the majority’s approach, doesn’t quite make sense to me. This is a very tentative thought, however, and a minority view, I gather.

Beyond the characterization of “electronic conversations”, the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver also disagree about the policy implications of the Supreme Court’s decision. In particular, Justice Moldaver worries that police will not be able to access, without a warrant, “electronic conversations” that are voluntarily tendered to them by one of the parties, even when the conversations are themselves crimes, and the parties disclosing them to the police are victims. A person may, for example, receive a threatening text message, and want to show it to police officers, but it is not clear that the police will be entitled to look without judicial authorization. At best, this will complicate the work of the police; at worst, serious crimes will go unpunished. The Chief Justice responds that these difficulties can be dealt with if and when they arise. For his part, Justice Rowe is not so sure, and I take that it is because he ” share[s] the concerns raised by Justice Moldaver as to the consequences of this decision” [89] that he goes to the trouble of writing separately.

A lot, then, remains to be decided. Privacy issues have been consistently difficult for the Supreme Court, or at any rate more consistently divisive than most others. I find these issues difficult too, so I have sympathy for judges on both sides. That the majority wants to be protective of privacy in a way the majority in R v Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] SCR 621 (which I criticized here) was not is heartening. (Some people on Twitter were wondering how many of the judges had got smartphones in the meantime. A cynical question, perhaps, but I’m not well placed to critcize those who are cynical about judges, am I?) The question now is whether the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of privacy. It might have, but we will have to wait to find out.

Doré’s Demise?

What do the Supreme Court’s latest decisions mean for judicial review of administrative decisions that implicate the Charter?

In my last post, I wrote about the religious freedom issues addressed in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ktunaxa Nation v British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations), 2017 SCC 54, which concerned the constitutionality of a ministerial decision to allow development on land considered sacred by an Aboriginal nation. I want to return to Ktunaxa, this time to address a different issue that has, so far as I know, attracted relatively little attention: that of the standard of review of the Minister’s decision. On this point, the majority opinion (by the Chief Justice and Justice Rowe) and the concurrence (by Justice Moldaver) illustrate the ongoing failure of the Rule of Law in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.

Let’s start with a bit of history. In Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, Justice Abella, for writing for the unanimous Supreme Court, articulated a framework “for reviewing discretionary administrative decisions that implicate Charter values”. [34] Such review would be deferential, conducted on a reasonableness standard, much like judicial review of most other legal issues, in recognition of administrative decision-makers’ expertise. This approach has been heavily criticized, not least by Paul Daly and Maxime St-Hilaire, but the Court has never overtly resiled from it. However, the application of Doré has been uneven, to say the least.

In Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613, the majority opinion, written by Justice Abella, applied the Doré framework. However, as both Paul Daly and yours truly have suggested, there is little to choose between the way it does so and a more traditional proportionality analysis. Meanwhile, a partial concurrence by the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver eschewed the Doré approach altogether. Just days later, in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 SCR 3, a majority of the Supreme Court took yet another approach, holding that the relationship between the freedom of religion, religious neutrality, and prayer by government officials was a question of central importance to the legal system and therefore reviewable on a correctness standard. Justice Gascon, writing for the majority, did offer an explanation for why this case was different, though one that Paul Daly criticized as confused and confusing. Justice Abella was also unimpressed; she concurred, but would have reviewed the decision of Québec’s Human Rights Tribunal on a reasonableness standard. Neither she nor Justice Gascon even mentioned Doré.

Back, now, to Ktunaxa. Again, the majority opinion does not so much as mention Doré. What is more, it does not even raise, never mind address, the issue of the standard of review. After describing the background and the history of the case, and outlining the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom claim, it proceeds to discuss the Charter right to freedom of religion and to address and reject the claim, without referring, much less deferring, to the Minister’s decision at all. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court’s next decision, Association of Justice Counsel v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 55, is the same in this regard. One of the issues raised there was whether a policy requiring government lawyers to be available, several weeks a year, to handle urgent matters outside of regular working hours was an infringement of their right to liberty under section 7 of the Charter. A labour arbitrator said that it was, but the Court (unanimous on this point) easily rejected that view, again without addressing either the question of the standard of review or the administrative decision-maker’s reasoning (though the majority did discuss it at length on the other issue in the case, which concerned the interpretation of a collective agreement).

Justice Moldaver’s concurrence in Ktunaxa is also worth mentioning here. He too starts out with his own discussion of the scope of religious freedom under the Charter, criticizes the majority’s view on it, and insists that the Minister’s decision was a prima facie infringement of that right. And then, Justice Moldaver turns to… the Doré framework (citing the majority opinion in Loyola for the proposition that it is “the applicable framework for assessing whether the Minister reasonably exercised his statutory discretion in accordance with the … Charter“. [136] Justice Moldaver explains why he thinks the Minister considered the Ktunaxa’s religious rights, and why his decision proportionately balanced these rights with the applicable statutory objective, paying fairly close attention to the minister’s reasoning.

So what is going on? Prof. Daly seems to think that not much is, but I’m not so sure. Without telling anyone, the Supreme Court might have killed off, or at least curtailed, Doré. Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel seem to suggest that, at least at the stage of defining the scope of a Charter right, Doré is not the applicable framework, and indeed no deference, or even attention, is due to an administrative decision-maker’s reasoning. Now, I’m no fan of Doré, and would be glad to know it’s dead and buried ― but if the Supreme Court has decided to get rid of it, that seems like a pretty big deal, and it should have told us. As things stand, for all we know, the Court might re-embrace Doré in the next case and pretend that Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel never happened, just as in those cases it seems to pretend that Doré, or at least Saguenay, never happened.

Moreover, there is an intermediate possibility, suggested by Justice Moldaver’s concurrence in Ktunaxa ― though of course we have no idea what the majority of the Court thinks about it, since it does not comment on this, or indeed any other, aspect of Justice Moldaver’s reasons. Perhaps, while the definition of Charter rights, as opposed to the justifiability of infringements under section 1, is a matter for the courts, while the justifiability of infringements is still to be reviewed by applying the Doré framework, perhaps as modified, if modified it was, in Loyola. This is not a crazy approach (which isn’t to say that I like even this diluted version of Doré). One could argue that the scope of Charter rights is necessarily a question of central importance to the legal system on which administrative decision-makers, even otherwise expert ones like labour arbitrators, are not in a privileged position vis-à-vis the courts, while whether a particular restriction to a right is permissible is an issue that is both less important and more bound up with a particular decision-maker’s expertise.

Crazy or not, I don’t think this approach is what Doré stands for. As I read it, Doré meant to move away from the two-stage Charter review with prima facie infringement and justification, in favour of a less structured, more global assessment. This is presumably why Justice Abella persistently spoke of Charter “values” instead of rights. Besides, at least one of the cases that Justice Abella invoked as supporting the proposition that discretionary administrative decisions engaging these “values” had to be reviewed on a reasonableness standard was a section 7 case, and in such cases the important questions typically (although, as we now know, not quite always) have to do with the definition of the right, not with its limitation under section 1. There just isn’t any indication in Doré that Justice Abella or her colleagues meant to confine it to the more limited role that it plays in Justice Moldaver’s Ktunaxa concurrence.

At the very least, then, the Supreme Court may have substantially modified Doré. Perhaps it has decided not to follow it anymore. But, to repeat, the Court has not told us so. This is problematic. Indeed, I think the Court is guilty of a serious Rule of Law failure. The Rule of Law requires law to be stable ― though not unchanging, to be sure ― yet the law on the standard of review of administrative decisions involving the Charter has now changed at least three, maybe four (depending on how to count Loyola) times in less than six years. The Rule of Law also requires, I think, that the fact of legal change be transparent (this is a function of the generally recognized requirement that law must be public). This is not always easy to ensure in the case of law being articulated and re-articulated by courts in the process of adjudication, but at least when a court knows that it is disregarding a relevant precedent or changing its approach to a type of case, it ought to be able to say so. The Supreme Court did so in Saguenay ― but not in Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel.

Or, look at this another way. In Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Supreme Court famously spoke of the importance of “the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process”. [47] That was by way of defining the notion of reasonableness in administrative law (itself a requirement of the Rule of Law), but you’d think that the courts should at least be held to as high a standard as administrative tribunals. Well, I’d say that it’s not easy to see much by way of justification, transparency, or intelligibility within the process by which the Supreme Court determines the standard of review of administrative decisions involving the Charter these days.

One last point. Justice Stratas links the doctrinal uncertainty that bedevils Canadian administrative law with turnover on the Supreme Court. I’m sure that this is a part of the story ― but Ktunaxa suggests that it is only a part. It’s not just that judges retire and are replaced by others who don’t agree with them. They don’t even stick to one approach while they are on the Court. Justice Abella wrote Doré and defended deferential review in Saguenay, but she signed on to the majority opinion arguably ignoring it in Ktunaxa. Justice Moldaver co-wrote the partial concurrence in Loyola that effectively rejected Doré, but in Ktunaxa he enthusiastically applied it, albeit not in full. (To be sure, there is something to be said for a judge who accepts having been outvoted on a particular issue and falls in line with the majority. But given the overall uncertainty of the law in this area, it might not be the best place to demonstrate one’s team spirit.) Given this individual inconstancy, it is no surprise that the Supreme Court as a whole is lurching from one approach to another without anything to stop it.

Given the lack of clarity from the Supreme Court about what exactly it was doing to standard of review analysis in Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel, we will have to wait to find out whether these case are just aberrations or the start of a new trend. It is at least possible, however, that they mean that Doré is, in whole or in part, no longer good law. I’d offer three cheers for that result, but must instead lament the lack of clarity and transparency with which it has ― unless it has not ― been reached.

A Hard Case

Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a religious freedom claim based on Aboriginal beliefs

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Ktunaxa Nation v British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations), 2017 SCC 54, which held among other things that the guarantee of religious freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not prevent the state from interfering with the object of one’s worship. Beliefs, says the majority in an opinion by Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Rowe, are protected ― but not the things that these beliefs attach to. Justice Moldaver, while concurring  in the result, vigorously disagrees with this approach. So does much enlightened opinion. And the critics have a point. But so does the majority. This is a much harder case than some of those who have criticized the decision have allowed.

For my purposes here, the facts are simple. The people of the Ktunaxa Nation have come to believe that allowing the building of any permanent constructions on a large tract of public land “would drive Grizzly Bear Spirit from [that land] and irrevocably impair their religious beliefs and practices” [6] to which the Spirit is central. Meanwhile, a developer wants to build a resort on that land and, after a protracted consultation process, has been granted permission to do so by the provincial government. The question is whether this decision infringes the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom and, if so, whether the infringement is justified under section 1 of the Charter. (There are other important issues in Ktunaxa too, but this post only deals with the religious freedom one.)

The majority concludes that there is no infringement of the freedom of religion. The constitution protects “the freedom to hold religious beliefs and the freedom to manifest those beliefs”. [63] An interference with a person’s or community’s beliefs and manifestation of these beliefs is a prima facie infringement of this guarantee. But there is no such interference here. The Ktunaxa can still believe in the Grizzly Bear Spirit, undertake rituals that manifest this belief, and transmit it to others. However, crucially, “[t]he state’s duty … is not to protect the object of beliefs, such as Grizzly Bear Spirit”. [71] Were it otherwise, “[a]djudicating how exactly a spirit is to be protected would require the state and its courts to assess the content and merits of religious beliefs”. [72]

Justice Moldaver argues that this is too narrow a view of religious practice and, therefore, religious freedom. Religious practice must be, well, religious ― otherwise there is no point to engaging in it. The state must take away its essential character: “where the spiritual significance of beliefs or practices has been taken away by state action, this interferes with an individual’s ability to act in accordance with his or her religious beliefs or practices”. [126] When religious belief involves a “connection to the physical world”, [127] as is the case for many aboriginal religions, a severing of this connection will infringe religious liberty. This, according to Justice Moldaver, is what happened in this case.

That said, Justice Moldaver ultimately upholds the government’s decision, because in his view it represents a proportionate balancing between the statutory objectives of administering and, when expedient, disposing of public lands, and the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom. Since the Ktunaxa themselves insisted that their claim could not be accommodated ― it had to be accepted or rejected ― to give effect to it would have meant giving them a veto over development on, and thus effectively a form of property rights in, a large parcel of public land. The government was “in a difficult, if not impossible, position”, [154] and its decision to allow development notwithstanding the Ktunaxa’s claim was reasonable.

Critics of the majority opinion agree with Justice Moldaver that the majority does not understand religious experience or the variety of religious practice. Avnish Nanda, in a thoughtful Twitter thread, blamed this failure on the lack of diversity on the Supreme Court. He pointed out that “[t]wo of the five pillars of Islam are intrinsically tied to” the Kaaba, and that, therefore, “[i]f the Kaaba were deprived of its spiritual significance, these religious practices core to Islam would be deprived of value”. But I’m not sure that diversity is the key issue here. After all, some forms Christian theology also accords great significance to sacred places and objects ― and one need not even be particularly familiar with this theology to be aware of its traces in the English (or French) language ― in words like “crusade” or “iconoclast”.

Whatever the reason for the majority’s narrow approach to religion, as I said at the outset, I think that its critics raise an important concern. Courts are prone to taking what is arguably too narrow a view of religious concerns, whether with respect to common or more exotic forms of faith. In a somewhat different but related context, Douglas Laycock once cautioned against “assum[ing] that religions lay down certain binding rules, and that the exercise of religion consists only of obeying the rules … as though all of religious experience were reduced to the Book of Leviticus”. (“The Remnants of Free Exercise”, 1990 Sup Ct Rev 1 at 24) Beliefs, obligations, and rituals are not all there is to freedom of religion. Community (the specific focus of Prof. Laycock’s concern) is important too, and so is attachment ― properly religious attachment ― to some aspects of the physical world.

However, as I also said in the beginning, we should not be too quick to condemn the majority opinion. To begin with, its concern about entangling the courts, and thus the ― secular and religiously neutral ― state in determinations of just what the protection of “objects of beliefs” requires is justified. David Laidlaw’s post over at ABlawg underscores this point, albeit unintentionally. Mr. Laidlaw insists that “the result in this case was a failure of imagination to consider the interests of the … Grizzly Bear Spirit”, which should have been recognized through the expedient of the courts granting the Spirit a legal personality and appointing counsel to represent it. For my part, I really don’t think that the Charter allows a court to embrace the interests of a spiritual entity ― thereby recognizing its reality. It is one thing for courts to acknowledge the interests and concerns of believers; in doing so, they do not validate the beliefs themselves ― only the rights of those who hold them. It is quite another to endorse the view that the belief itself is justified. And then, of course, the court would still need to determine whether any submissions made on behalf of the Spirit were well-founded. But even without going to such lengths, it is true that to give effect to the Ktunaxa’s claim, the Supreme Court would have had to hold not only that the Ktunaxa sincerely believed in the existence of and their connection to the Grizzly Bear Spirit, but also that this connection would in fact be ruptured by development on the land at issue. To do so would have meant validating the asserted belief.

There is a related point to make here, which, though it is unstated in the majority opinion, just might have weighed on its authors’ minds. Insisting that the connection between a person’s religious belief and the object of this belief deserves constitutional protection might have far-reaching and troubling consequences. The movement to insist that “defamation of religion” must be forbidden and punished is based on the same idea: things people hold sacred deserve protection, and so the state ought to step in to prevent their being desecrated ― say, by banning cartoons of a Prophet or jailing people for “insulting religious feelings”. Now, perhaps this does not matter. To the extent that the protection of the objects of beliefs is purely “negative”, in the sense that the state itself must not engage in desecration but not need not take action to prevent desecration by others, it need not translate into oppressive restrictions on the freedom of expression (and perhaps of religion) of those whose behaviour some believers would deem to compromise their own faith. But I am not sure that this distinction will always be tenable. If, for instance, a regulatory authority subject to the Charter grants a permit for an activity that a religious group believes to trample on the object of its faith ― say, a demonstration in support of people’s rights to draw cartoons, where such cartoons are going to be displayed ― does it thereby become complicit in the purported blasphemy, and so infringe the Charter? (This argument is not frivolous: it parallels one of those made by those who think that law societies should be free to deny accreditation to Trinity Western’s proposed law school lest they become complicity in its homophobia.)

There is an additional reason why Ktunaxa strikes me as a difficult case ― though perhaps also a less important one than it might seem. Suppose Justice Moldaver’s view of the scope of religious freedom under the Charter is correct, and the state has a prima facie duty not to take away the sacred character of (at least) physical spaces and objects involved in religious belief. But as Justice Moldaver himself says, this seems to be tantamount to giving religious believers a form of property interest in the spaces or objects at issue. That might not be a problem if the believers already own these things in a more conventional sense ― though even in such cases a constitutional quasi-proprietary right would be unusual given the Charter’s lack of protection for ordinary property rights. But, as Ktunaxa shows, in the absence of more conventional interests (whether fee simple ownership or aboriginal title or right), the recognition of such interests can get very problematic, because they amount to giving religious believers control over things that are not actually theirs. And what if the sacred place or object is owned not by the state but by another person? What if more than one religious group lays claim to it? In short, I’m not sure that there will be many, if any, cases where competing considerations would not prevail in a section 1 analysis (whether under the Oakes or, especially, the Doré framework), just as they did in Ktunaxa.

These thoughts, in case that wasn’t clear, are all quite tentative. I’m certainly open to the possibility of being proven wrong. If I am right, however, Ktunaxa really was a very difficult case, and it is not obvious that the majority got it wrong ― though nor is it clear that it got it right. Hard cases, it is often said, make bad law. I’m not sure that this is what happened here ― or that it even matters if it did.

The Rule against Violence

A timely opinion on freedom of expression by Justice Miller for the Ontario Court of Appeal

Last week, the Court of Appeal for Ontario delivered a noteworthy decision regarding the scope and limits of the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, Bracken v Town of Fort Erie, 2017 ONCA 668. The decision, written by Justice Miller for a unanimous court, breaks no new ground, but contains clear and cogent reminders of two elementary principles that, sadly, may not be self-evident in 2017: violence is not a constitutionally protected form of expression; but words, even spoken in anger, and even if those who hear them are, subjectively, feeling unsafe as a result, are not violence.

The case arose out of Mr Bracken’s solitary, but perhaps somewhat agitated, protest in the parking lot in front of the Town Hall against a decision the municipal council was about to make. Employees of the Town, one of whom had had a rather unpleasant interaction with Mr Bracken in the past, felt worried enough by what they perceived as erratic and threatening behaviour on his part that they called the police, who arrested Mr Bracken and served him with a Trespass Notice banning him from the Town Hall and two other municipal properties. The question for the courts was whether this contravened Mr Bracken’s freedom of expression. The Superior Court said “no”, on the basis that the expression in question was violent. The Court of Appeal disagreed.

* * *

After noting that the protection for freedom of expression, which Canadian courts recognized even before the entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is broad, Justice Miller explains why violence nevertheless falls outside the scope of this protection, although “some might find it difficult to understand the rationale for excluding violence categorically”. [30] “Violence and force”, he points out, “are predicated on the denial that persons are equal in dignity, negating the reciprocity necessary for communication and genuine dialogue”. [28] To treat prohibitions on violence as in need of justification

would be tantamount to declaring that Canadian constitutional morality is open to the proposition that an individual’s self-expression through acts of violence could, in some conceivable circumstances, take priority over the public good of protecting persons by restraining acts of violence. [30]

But how far does the exclusion of violence from the scope of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression extend? Justice Miller notes that it has been held to apply to actual physical violence and to threats of such violence, “on the basis that a person who threatens violence takes away free choice and undermines freedom of action” just as surely as one who commits violence. [31] But there was no evidence that Mr Bracken had engaged in any such behaviour. The Town employees who felt threatened by him had “observed him ‘from a safe distance'”. [37] One of them testified that she had “never had a conversation with” Mr Bracken prior to the court proceedings. [43] In short, Justice Miller concludes, “[t]he employees were indeed frightened, but the evidence does not disclose any reasonable basis for their fear.” [46]

Since Mr Bracken was not violent, his protest was protected by the Charter‘s guarantee of freedom of expression. The trespass notice banning him from the Town’s property was an infringement of his freedom, and one that cannot be justified under section 1 of the Charter. This is primarily because the Town’s action in banning Mr Bracken did not pursue a valid objective:

the factual basis on which [the Town] issued the trespass notice was largely erroneous. Mr. Bracken was not engaged in any violent activity. He was not blocking anyone. He was not preventing anyone from accessing the building. His behaviour was neither intimidating, in any relevant sense of the word, nor erratic. The Town employees, both junior and senior, were alarmed, but they were alarmed too easily. … If anyone felt intimidated by him, other than Town employees who had never before witnessed a protest and doubted that protests in front of Town Hall were lawful, it was not because he was threatening anyone. [76]

Besides, the trespass notice was much too broad; a disruptive or threatening protester might be asked to leave or, if need be, expelled, but that does not justifying banning him from public property for a whole year.

* * *

 

I’ll make a couple of observations about Justice Miller’s reasons. One is that they are at once unique, in the sense that a different judge would probably have written noticeably differently, and perfectly orthodox. I doubt many judges would have cited Joseph Raz (as Justice Miller does in describing “[t]he rule against violence [as] an exclusionary rule: it excludes by kind and not by weight”), or perhaps even Grégoire Webber’s The Negotiable Constitution: On the Limitation of Rights. Nor would many have spoken of “a set of human goods thought to be advanced by a constitutional protection of freedom of expression” [26; emphasis mine], using a phrase drawn from natural law theory. (The Supreme Court usually speaks of values or purposes instead.) But Justice Miller’s conclusions are those that the vast majority of Canadian judges would, I would like to hope, reach when presented with a similar case. (Of course, the trial judge reached the opposite conclusion, which is not altogether reassuring.) And as for the natural law allusion, though it might upset Sean Fine (who was much exercised by Justice Miller’s interest in natural law at the time of Justice Miller’s promotion to the Court of Appeal), Justice Miller shows that it too is more orthodox than Mr. Fine might realize, by referring to Justice Rand’s remark in Saumur v. City of Quebec, [1953] 2 SCR 299 that

freedom of speech, religion and the inviolability of the person are original freedoms which are at once the necessary attributes and modes of self-expression of human beings and the primary conditions of their community life within a legal order. (329)

(While I’m at it, can I gratuitously put in a plug for a post I wrote a earlier this year about a Québec Court of Appeal decision from the ’50s where natural law played an even more important role?)

The second observation I wanted to make here is that, although he decides the case under the Charter, the way it was argued by Mr. Bracken (who was representing himself), Justice Miller points out that administrative law reasons may well have supported an identical outcome. He notes that

a preliminary question … was never addressed: whether the Town’s expulsion of Mr. Bracken from the premises and the issuance of the trespass notice was lawful in the circumstances. … [Addressing it] may have obviated the need for a Charter analysis, and would have brought to the fore the issue of the implied limits on the common law authority of government actors to exclude persons from public property. [24]

Justice Miller adds

that where a government issues a trespass notice relying on the common law power to expel persons from property, it is exercising a power that is subject to implied limits. It cannot be issued capriciously; that is, it cannot be issued, in the circumstances of a public protest in the town square, without a valid public purpose. [75]

This matters, not just out of legal pedantry, but because one important actor that may well find itself involved in controversies about freedom of expression, protests, and violence real or imaginary might not be subject to the Charter: universities. Yet while the applicability of the Charter to them remains a murky question, it is clear that their decisions can in appropriate circumstances be subject to judicial review. Justice Miller’s reasons reinforce the point, already made by a majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Pridgen v University of Calgary, 2012 ABCA 139, that freedom of expression is an important consideration for such proceedings.

 * * *

This brings me to the last issue I want to address: how Justice Miller’s opinion fits into not just the legal, but the broader social context of 2017. This context is marked by the presence of two most unfortunate, and seemingly contradictory, beliefs: on the one hand, that “punching nazis”—and, inevitably, any number of other people—is permissible, and perhaps commendable; on the other, that some words—perhaps “hate speech” more or less narrowly defined, and perhaps some broader category of politically incorrect expression—are tantamount to violence and should be excluded from the scope of protection normally granted freedom of expression. (Richard Epstein provides a cogent rebuttal of that view in this Wall Street Journal article.)

Although they seem incoherent if not mutually exclusive, these twin beliefs work together to blur, indeed to erase, the line between the concepts of expression and violence. What one says, or does, is expression; what one’s opponents say, or do, is violence. And, as Lewis Carroll knew, the ability to make words mean whatever different things one chooses them to mean, neither more nor less, is a matter of “who is to be master”.

Justice Miller’s opinion resolutely pushes back against both of these pernicious ways of thinking. It explains why “punching Nazis” is never permissible—doing it means refusing to treat them as human beings (which, of course, is what Nazis themselves were notorious for). But it also insists that hurt feelings, or purely subjective claims of intimidation cannot be re-labelled as allegations of violence to shut down speech or protest, even when it takes on an unpleasant form:

Violence is not the mere absence of civility. The application judge extended the concept of violence to include actions and words associated with a traditional form of political protest, on the basis that some Town employees claimed they felt “unsafe”. This goes much too far. A person’s subjective feelings of disquiet, unease, and even fear, are not in themselves capable of ousting expression categorically from the protection of s. 2(b) [of the Charter].

The consequences of characterizing an act as violence or a threat of violence are extreme: it conclusively defeats the Charter claim without consideration of any other factor. Accordingly, courts must be vigilant in determining whether the evidence supports the characterization, and in not inadvertently expanding the category of what constitutes violence or threats of violence.

… A protest does not cease to be peaceful simply because protestors are loud and angry. Political protesters can be subject to restrictions to prevent them from disrupting others, but they are not required to limit their upset in order to engage their constitutional right to engage in protest. [49-51]

Justice Miller thus provides a very timely statement of the orthodox principles of freedom of expression in the public square. It would be nice if not only his fellow judges, but also others in positions of authority—in governments at every level, in universities, and elsewhere—as well as those tempted to take authority in their own hands, or fists, read his opinion and took it to heart. We would be a freer and more respectful society if they did.

H/t: Geoff Sigalet