Read Edward Willis’ and my submission on legislation that would censor criticism of the judiciary

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a bill, currently before the New Zealand Parliament, which would codify ― and expand ― the law of contempt of court, in particular as it relates to criticism of the judiciary. (At common law, this is known as the offence of “scandalizinig the court”.) I argued that the offence the bill would create is overbroad, that the defences to it are insufficient, and that the bill, if enacted, would unjustifiably violate the freedom of expression, the freedom of conscience, and the presumption of innocence.

Well, for once, I thought that just ranting on my blog was not enough, so Edward Willis and I started to work on a submission to the Justice Select Committee, which will be studying the bill. We have been joined by my boss, Charles Rickett, my colleagues Warren Brookbanks and Vernon Rive, as well as Andrew Geddis and Eddie Clark, in arguing that, if the provisions related to criticism of the judiciary are not removed from the bill entirely, they need at least to be amended to be more compliant with fundamental constitutional principles and rights. In particular, we propose making the falsity of any statement punishable as contempt an element of the offence, to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution, rather than a defence to be proven the accused; introducing a defence of honest opinion; and removing the ability of the Solicitor General to request, or of the High Court to order, that a person correct, retract, or apologize for a statement that has not been proven to constitute contempt of court; indeed we are proposing getting rid of forced corrections and apologies entirely.

You can read our submission here. Working on it with Dr Willis has been great fun, and I’m very grateful to our co-signatories for their help and support.

The Real Contempt

New Zealand’s Parliament considers legislation that would shield courts from criticism ― and make them instruments of censorship

I do not write about New Zealand very much, although I have been living here for a year and a half. Perhaps it is as well. If the Administration of Justice (Reform of Contempt of Court) Bill currently before the Justice Select Committee of New Zealand’s Parliament is enacted into law without substantial amendments, a blog post making “an allegation or accusation … against a Judge or a court [of New Zealand]” and deemed to create “a real [to] undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” could land me in prison for up to two years, or get me fined $50,000.

Now, much of the Contempt Bill, developed by the New Zealand Law Commission as part of an effort to clarify and update the law of contempt of court, seems to be a worthwhile project. But the provisions relating to criticism of the judiciary are dangerous. They are overbroad, infringe the presumption of innocence and freedom of conscience as well as freedom of expression, and rely on a dangerous amount of discretion in their enforcement.  Even if they are not applied to the fullest extent of which they are capable ― and, as I will explain below, I think they are meant not to be ― these provisions will have a chilling effect on lawyers and laypersons alike who might want to comment on the courts, whether in the media, on blogs, or in scholarship. They ought be amended or indeed abandoned altogether.

In a recent post, for instance, I argued that the Supreme Court of Canada had a “pro-regulatory bias”; previously, I criticized Chief Justice McLachlin for “tak[ing] up a partisan slogan” ― Pierre Trudeau’s “just society” ― “and try[ing] to make it into a constitutional ideal”, and mused about the corrupting effects of power on chief justices generally. If I criticize New Zealand’s courts and judges in similar ways, I think it would be fair to say that I would be making “accusations or allegations” that could, at least if read more widely than this blog normally is, “undermine public confidence in the … integrity or impartiality” of their targets. And while I know that not everyone is a fan of my sometimes strongly-worded opinions, I wouldn’t be the only one to fall foul of the Contempt Bill. The cover article of the New Zealand Law Society’s magazine this month is called “Bullying from the bench“, and its very first sentence is: “Bullying judges are identified and discussed whenever lawyers get together”. The same Law Society, meanwhile, is investigating a lawyer, Catriona MacLennan, for calling a judge unfit for the bench after he let off a man accused of domestic violence on the basis that “many people … would have done exactly” the same. Perhaps if the Contempt Bill is passed the Law Society will have a chance to rethink its position as it joins Ms MacLennan among those charged with undermining public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.

These examples make clear, I hope, that the criminalisation of “accusations or allegations” that “could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” can capture a vast range of perfectly legitimate, indeed absolutely necessary, criticism. While the Contempt Bill (and the Law Commission’s report) seem to suggest that only “untrue” statements are being targeted, this word appears only in the headings of Subpart 6 of Part 2 and of Clause 24 of the Bill  ― not in the text of subclause 24(1) which defines the offense. Rather, the truth (or material truth) of an “allegation or accusation” is, by subclause 24(3), made a defence to a charge under subclause 24(1) ― if the accused can prove the truth of the “allegation or accusation” “on the balance of probabilities”.

This is nowhere near enough to circumscribe the scope of the offence. For one thing, many “accusations or allegations” against the judiciary (such as my claims about pro-regulatory bias, or arguably Ms MacLennan’s views about the unfitness of the nothing-wrong-with-domestic-violence judge) are matters of conjecture or opinion: they are inherently incapable of being proven true. For another, ostensibly factual statements that could in theory be true or false can be made for rhetorical effect, and fail to be “materially true” even though they make a legitimate and easily discernable point (such as the claim about lawyers always talking about bullying judges). Besides, the requirement that an accused prove the truth of a statement when only “untrue” ones are thought to be worthy of being criminalized sits uneasily, to say the least, with the presumption of innocence (protected by paragraph 25(c) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). To be sure, in Canada, a similar truth-as-a-defence provision was upheld as a justified limitation on the right to be presumed innocent in R v Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697. But what is justified in the context of a very narrow proscription of hate speech might not be in the context of a much broader ban on criticizing a branch of government and its officials.

Moreover, it seems to me that asking judges to rule that “allegations or accusations” calling into question the impartiality or integrity of colleagues, let alone hierarchical superiors, are true is putting both them and the accused forced to make that case in an exceedingly difficult position. (Of course, any suggestion that judges might be reluctant to impugn the impartiality or integrity of fellow-judges into question is itself an “accusation” that could “undermine public confidence” in their impartiality and integrity ―  and one that is inherently incapable of being proven true.) In Canadian law, there is a principle of fundamental justice according to which any defence to a criminal charge “should not be illusory or so difficult to attain as to be practically illusory”: R v Morgentaler, [1988] 1 SCR 30 at 70 (per Dickson CJ);  R v St‑Onge Lamoureux, 2012 SCC 57, [2012] 3 SCR 187) at [77]. While the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act does not require such principles to be followed before a person can be imprisoned, this still seems like a sensible moral guideline. The Contempt Bill does not comply with it.

The Contempt Bill’s provisions on criticism of the judiciary have other serious problems, besides the breadth of the offense it creates and the narrowness if not the illusory character of the defence of truth. Instead of, or in addition to, prosecuting a person for having made “allegations or accusations” against the judiciary, the Solicitor-General is empowered, under subclause 25(2) to “request” a retraction or an apology ― including a retraction pending the determination of that person’s guilt. The Solicitor General can also apply, under subclause 26(1), for an order of the High Court requiring, among other things, a retraction or an apology. Such an order is to be granted if the Court is “satisfied that there is an arguable case that” prohibited “allegations or accusations” have been made. Such orders must, under subclause 26(5) be consistent “with the rights and freedoms contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990”, but non-compliance can, under clause 27, lead to stiff fines ― and “knowing or reckless” non-compliance to imprisonment too.

This, in my view, is inconsistent with the freedoms of expression and conscience, as well taking further liberties with the presumption of innocence. The Solicitor-General’s “requests”, backed by the implicit threat of hauling a non-compliant person before the High Court, will at least produce a chilling effect, if not be outright coercive. “Requests” to retract statements that have not yet been judged to be illegal ― with perhaps, wink wink, nudge nudge, the possibility to avoid prosecution as an inducement ― are especially disturbing. But the prospect of court-ordered apologies is even worse. Persons who are being coerced, by threat of imprisonment, into apologizing are being made to say something they do not believe in and, in an affront to freedom of conscience, also to express a moral judgment about their own culpability which they presumably do not share. A liberal state cannot extort such moral judgments from its citizens. As Justice Beetz, speaking for a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada in “additional reasons” in National Bank of Canada v Retail Clerks’ International Union, [1984] 1 SCR 269, said of a labour arbitrator’s order that a bank sign a letter endorsing the objectives of labour legislation, “[t]his type of penalty is totalitarian and as such alien to the tradition of free nations like Canada,” ― or New Zealand ― “even for the repression of the most serious crimes”. (296) Whatever the Contempt Bill might say about respecting the Bill of Rights Act, it is not possible to make such orders with violating the freedom of expression and the freedom of conscience of their targets.

The fact that these orders could be made, not upon a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or even on a balance of probabilities, but merely if there is an “arguable case” that a person has published “an allegation or accusation” that creates “a real risk” of “public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary or a court” being “undermined” only compounds the iniquity of the Contempt Bill. To be sure, the orders are, ostensibly at least, a form of civil remedy ― though note Justice Beetz’s description of the arbitrator’s letter as a “penalty”. Thus the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act’s protection for the presumption of innocence, which only extends to persons “charged with an offence”, does not apply. Yet the low burden of proof required for a retraction or an apology order means that rights can be interfered with on the basis of a weak showing by the government, even one that is less likely than not to be justified, and so go against the principle of respect for individual rights if not the right to be presumed innocent itself.

Finally, it is worth highlighting the fact that the Contempt Bill quite clearly contemplates that the enforcement of its proscription on “allegations or accusations” against the judiciary will be highly discretionary. Prosecutions are required to be “in the public interest”, (subclause 25(4)) and “may consider” the existence of any complaints about a judge and “any explanation provided by the Judge” (subclause 25(5)). This, I think, is a tacit admission of drafting failure. The Contempt Bill’s authors implicitly recognize that it is overbroad, and hope that the good judgment of prosecutors can be relied on to avoid fining or imprisoning people for legitimate criticism of the judiciary. This is not good enough. The chilling effect of the criminalisation of such criticism will be felt even if there are no abusive prosecutions, as those who write about the courts constantly watch their words and wonder whether they are crossing the line that exists in the prosecutors’ minds. And there is something perverse for a bill that sets out to clarify the law and give citizens fair notice of their responsibilities vis-à-vis the justice system to rely on prosecutorial discretion to avoid these responsibilities becoming a crushing burden.

The Contempt Bill’s provisions restricting criticism of the judiciary must not be enacted in their current form. Whether any such provisions should be enacted at all is something I still need to think through. If enacted, however, they ought at a bare minimum to make room for what Lord Denning MR described, in R v Com’r of Police of the Metropolis, Ex parte Blackburn (No 2), [1968] 2 QB 150 (CA) as “the right of every man, in Parliament or out of it, in the Press or over the broadcast, to make fair comment, even outspoken comment, on matters of public interest”, including by saying that a court is “mistaken, and [its] decisions erroneous, whether they are subject to appeal or not” (155) ― and including, too, if the commenter him- or herself is in error. New Zealand’s Parliament should take the advice of Lord Denning when he said that his court would not invoke its powers to find a person in contempt “as a means to uphold [its] own dignity. That must rest on surer foundations.” (155) That this power would now  come from statute rather than the common law does not change matters. New Zealand’s courts are independent, and therefore should, just like the English Court of Appeal, “not fear criticism, nor …  resent it”. (155) If anything, it seems to me that the courts’ dignity is more endangered by legislation that would make them into instruments of censorship than by criticism.

Ach, mein Sinn

Bach on the reasons for respecting freedom of conscience

I’m not at all religious; I found seeing a procession carrying a cross, and kneeling down to pray briefly outside my building in the centre of Auckland before continuing on their way rather bemusing. But I do like good music, very much including religious music from JS Bach to Dave Brubeck, and a rainy Good Friday seemed like a very good occasion to listen to a recording of the St John Passion without getting distracted.

This turned out, however, to be a more topical exercise than I expected. Pilate wondering “What is truth?” and the crowd insisting that “We have a law, and according to that law He should die” ― was Auden thinking of this when he wrote about “the loud angry crowd/ Very angry and very loud” claiming that “Law is We”? ― are just two examples of the very contemporary issues the Passion raises, quite from any belief that it holds eternal truths.

But it was another passage that struck me most, one that speaks to a truth that is, at least, as old as mankind but also, sadly, very relevant to Canadians in 2018: the aria “Ach, mein Sinn”.


Here is a translation:

Alas, my conscience,
where will you flee at last,
where shall I find refreshment?
Should I stay here,
or do I desire
mountain and hill at my back?
In all the world there is no counsel,
and in my heart
remains the pain
of my misdeed,
since the servant has denied the Lord.

As you’ve probably guessed, the words are Peter’s, after he denies being one of Jesus’ disciples. But the description of a conscience that is tormented by its own weakness, that wants to flee its predicament yet realizes that it cannot escape, and that cannot be helped, is one that ought to be recognizable to all human beings, regardless of their belief in, or indeed awareness of, the Gospel story. Whether Peter has denied the Lord or “only” a man he loved and admired is, I think, quite beside the point. Either way, he has given up his integrity, and he suffers as a result.

It is also beside the point whether Peter’s denial was voluntary, and his suffering, something he brought upon himself. Having followed Jesus, whom the High Priest’s men have arrested, to the High Priest’s palace, Peter is confronted by “One of the high priest’s servants, a friend of the man whose ear Peter had cut off”. He is no doubt afraid; he is probably right to be afraid. From an external perspective, his denial might be excusable; one shouldn’t be quick to boast that one would not have done the same in such circumstances. But for Peter himself such excuses are of no avail.

This reminder of why conscience is so important is most timely. The idea that Trinty Western University can just be made to abandon its homophobic and illiberal “covenant”, or that religious groups can be made to accept an “attestation” implying support for abortion rights, or that Ontario lawyers can be made to “promote” values regardless of their belief in them, ignores the suffering that these institutions and individuals would subject themselves to in complying with the state’s demands. Empathy for this sort of suffering, for the pain people when they lose their integrity, even if acting under the compulsion of the law and the threat of legal sanction, is the justification for respecting and protecting ― including by constitutional means ― the freedom of conscience.

The promoters and defenders of impositions on conscience feel no such empathy. Whether that is because they do not understand the plight of those whose obedience they demand, or because they are indifferent to it, I do not know. I suspect that a certain failure of imagination ― the inability or the refusal to admit that they might not always be the ones exacting obedience, and that they might instead find themselves in the position of would-be conscientious objectors ― is at least partly at issue. But, either as a warning about what they might themselves feel one day, or as an appeal for compassion, I hope that they take note of “Ach, mein Sinn”.

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.

One’s Own Self, Like Water

The Law Society’s demand for a “Statement of Principles” is a totalitarian values test

In my last post, I outlined the scope of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s demands that all lawyers subject to its regulation, including those who are retired or working outside Ontario, produce a “Statement of Principles that acknowledges” a purported “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” ― not only in the practice of law but “generally”. I also explained that no such obligation exists at present, because none is imposed by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other rules applicable to lawyers, as they now stand, and that it is doubtful whether the Law Society could lawfully impose such an obligation under its enabling statute.

I have not seen meaningful responses to these concerns. On the contrary, they have been echoed in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail by Arthur Cockfield. Instead, those who defend the Law Society argue that whatever limitation of our rights the Law Society’s demands produce, the limitation is justified if analysed under the proportionality framework of s 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also point to the fact that lawyers are already required, by s 21(1) of Law’s Society’s By-Law 4, to swear an oath upon entry into the profession.

I agree with the Law Society’s defenders that the “Statement of Principles” that it wants us to produce is indeed similar to an oath, and in particular to the oath required by s 21(1), which I will refer to as “the lawyers’ oath”. They are similar in nature, in purpose ― and in their uselessness and questionable constitutionality. I will discuss these points below, drawing heavily on the criticisms of the Canadian citizenship oath (and, specifically, of its reference to the Queen) that I have developed over the course of four years of blogging on this topic, and especially in an article on this issue published in the National Journal of Constitutional Law. (Indeed, though it was not the focus of my argument, I briefly discussed the lawyers’ oath in the article.) Some of those who defend the Law Society have sought to accuse its critics of hypocrisy over our purported failure to object to oaths, and especially to oaths of allegiance to the Queen. Whatever the rhetorical value of such accusations ― and I think that it is nil, since they do not refute our substantive objections ― this topic is not new to me.

Start, then, with the nature of the oath or “Statement of Principles”. Both are forced expressions of commitment to acting in certain ways. Though a “Statement of Principles” might, depending on the way in which it is formulated, ostensibly stop just short of being a promise, I think that any distinction between acknowledging an obligation and promising to fulfill an obligation is one without a difference in this context. In his National Post op-ed criticizing the Law Society’s demands, Bruce Pardy treated the “Statement of Principles” as a forced expression of support of support for the Law Society’s policies, which I think is quite right. As Prof. Pardy pointed out, in National Bank of Canada v Retail Clerks’ International Union, [1984] 1 SCR 269, the Supreme Court has condemned such demands as “totalitarian and as such alien to the tradition of free nations like Canada”. (296) Although in Slaight Communications Inc v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 the Court made it clear that this holding did not apply to compelled statements of fact, this (wrongheaded, in my view) narrowing of the National Bank holding is not relevant here. But, as I have argued in my blog posts and article, coerced commitments are more than expressions of opinion. They are impositions not only on the freedom of speech of those who must make them, but also on their freedom of conscience. Oaths, as the Supreme Court explained in R v Khan, [1990] 2 SCR 531 work by “getting a hold on [the] conscience” of those who take them, notably ― but not only, as I shall presently explain ― by making the thing sworn to a matter of moral, and not merely legal, obligation. The  “Statement of Principles” is similar, in that it is an attempt to make every lawyer embrace, as a matter of his or her personal morality, and thus conscience, the principles set out in that statement.

The other way in which oaths typically impinge on conscience, and also a point of similarity between the lawyers’ oath and the “Statement of Principles” is that, because they typically impose vague obligations that go well beyond the requirements of any positive law, they demand frequent if not constant exercise of moral judgment about the precise scope of the duties being sworn to. As I wrote in my article, the lawyers’ oath

requires lawyers, among other things, to “protect and defend the rights of interests” of their clients; to “conduct all cases faithfully”; not to “refuse causes of complaint reasonably founded, nor [to] promote suits upon frivolous pretences”; to “seek to ensure access to justice”; and to “champion the rule of law and safeguard the rights and freedoms of all persons.” These (and the other requirements of the oath) are not straightforward obligations. Discharging them requires lawyers to think about just what their duties are. … [T]o a considerable degree, the judgment required is a moral one. In some cases, that is because the lawyers’ duties are couched in moral terms (like “faithfulness” …). In other cases, the degree to which one can and ought to fulfill these duties must necessarily be left to individual conscience. (How far must one go to “ensure access to justice”: does it require one to limit one’s fees? How much pro bono work need one do? Can one “ensure access to justice” while being a member of a state-enforced cartel devoted to raising the cost of legal services?) In other cases still, it is because the lawyers’ duties can conflict (for instance, when the defence of a client’s interests might suggest launching a “suit upon frivolous pretences”), requiring moral judgment about which is to prevail. In short, a lawyer must constantly, or at least frequently, rely on his or her conscience to determine just what it is that his or her oath requires. (152)

The “Statement of Principles” would be meant to do the same thing, requiring lawyers (those, at least, who take it seriously) to be constantly asking themselves what their general “obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion” requires. It is no answer that the requirement is merely to comply with relevant human rights legislation. Not only is no “Statement of Principles” necessary to achieve that, but this legislation does not actually apply to many lawyers, such as those who are retired and not engaged in the sorts of relationships or activities which such legislation covers. The whole point of a “Statement of Principles” is to go beyond the positive law.

These impositions on freedom of conscience ― and, of course, the compelled expression  of opinion that the lawyers’ oath and “Statement of Principles” also are ― require justification. I do not think that any exists. In my article, I take the Canadian citizenship oath through the Oakes proportionality analysis, and find that it fails at every step. (Interestingly, as I also note in the article, the Law Society itself dropped the mandatory oath to the Queen due to constitutional concerns.) Of course, the issues with the lawyers’ oath and the “Statement of Principles” are not the exactly same. Yet there are also some common points.

In particular, both supposedly serve the sort of “[v]ague and symbolic objectives” of which the Supreme Court told us to be wary in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519 while having a tenuous relationship to these objectives. The lawyers’ oath is unlikely to make many lawyers more ethical, or more committed to the Rule of Law. One is ethical, or a “champion of the Rule of Law”, because one believes in these things ― not because one was made to swear to them. Similarly, even the Law Society’s defenders tend to acknowledge that requiring us to produce a the Statement of Principles is not going to do much to make the legal profession more diverse or inclusive. A symbolic expression of commitment to a set of values, no matter how attractive, is no more necessary than a symbolic expression of commitment to one’s country, no matter how great ― which, I explain in the article on  the citizenship oath, and as Liav Orgad explained in more detail in his study of loyalty oaths, is to say not necessary at all.

This is all the more so since the Law Society explicitly states that the requirement to produce a “Statement of Principles” can be satisfied by the simple expedient of “adopting” one of the sample “Statements” supplied by the Law Society itself. Indeed, the Law Society’s defenders suggest that since we could easily “adopt” one of those sample statements, regardless of whether we believe in them, or some other “Statement” so vague and bland that, as Annamaria Enenajor put it to me on Twitter,  “a closet [sic] neo-nazi lawyer could get down with” it, the whole thing is really no big deal. This again is similar to the lawyers’ oath. I have no doubt that if Justice Abella chooses to re-join the bar after her retirement from the Supreme Court, she will feel no compunctions about promising to “champion the rule of law” ― even though it is a matter of public record that “[t]he ubiquitous phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her“, and that she prefers something called “the rule of justice”. But to the extent that the Law Soceity’s fellow-travellers are right, it is difficult to see how the “Statement of Principles” is meaningfully addressing a pressing and substantial concern, and it must fail the proportionality test for that reason.

There is, however, another possibility. As with the citizenship oath and the lawyers’ oath, while most people may be content to make a pretended commitment to ideas or principles they do not understand or indeed secretly despise, some are not. They take a thing of that nature, whether called an oath or a Statement of Principles, seriously. They agree with Robert Bolt’s Thomas More that “[w]hen a man takes an oath … he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again”. And, just like More refused to falsely swear an oath to regard Henry VIII as head of the Church, they will not tick off box on the Law Society’s form to acknowledge an obligation to promote ideals the Law Societey’s interpretation of which  they do not share, or indeed the Law Society’s authority to impose which they reject. As to such people ― as to those who refuse to live in the closet ― the Law Society’s demand is not a trivial, if useless, imposition. As prof. Pardy argues, and as the Supreme Court has long accepted, forcing people to endorse opinions that they do not share is totalitarian ― or at any rate no less oppressive than the government of Henry VIII. As to such people, the Law Society’s demands will, at all events, fail the “proportionality strictu sensu” test, because totalitarian demands for ideological compliance always impose a greater cost than whatever benefit the state (or, in this case, the Law Society) can hope to obtain by imposing them.

Beyond the dry terminology of proportionality analysis, it is important to understand that what is at stake here is neither more nor less than a values test for the practice of law. While some have resisted this implication (going so far as to argue that a requirement to produce a “Statement of Principles” is not a values test even though a requirement to provide it to the Law Society would be one!), others among the Law Society’s fellow travellers are quite comfortable with it. In their view, there is nothing wrong with a legal profession in which only people who hold the right values ― and those who are sufficiently unprincipled to dissemble about theirs ― are welcome to remain, while those who are deemed to be wrong, and who refuse to hide in the closet in response, are shown the door. The undesirables are not yet pushed out ― it may be that the Law Society’s policy is nothing more than a paper tiger, a “demand” that will not be meaningfully enforced. But it could also be a warning, and a test. Even if the Law Society does not try coercion now, acquiescence to its demands it will embolden it do so in the future. As others have argued, it will also show that the legal profession is supine enough to comply with the authorities’ attempts to impose orthodoxy on it. And this leads me to a final question for those who support the Law Society. Are you really so confident of always being among those whose orthodoxy will be imposed on others? Thomas More ― the historical one, the one who confiscated books and rejoiced in the burning of heretics ― was so confident. May you fare better than he did.

New Swearwords

The Prime Minister wants to make a meaningless addition to our unconstitutional citizenship oath

As the CBC reports, the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship directs him to “[w]ork in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to make changes to the Oath of Canadian Citizenship to reflect the Truth and Reconciliation’s [sic] Calls to Action.” What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested was adding the clause “including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples” to the undertaking to “faithfully observe the laws of Canada”. This addition is silly ― and, meanwhile, the oath remains unconstitutional, as I have long argued here and in an article published in the National Journal of Constitutional Law.

Having new citizens undertake to “faithfully observe … Treaties with Indigenous Peoples” is meaningless exercise in symbolic politics. The treaties in question do not bind citizens. Citizens trying to ascertain the duties they subscribe by taking the oath in this form would find none. The treaties do not require them to do or not to do anything. They impose obligations on (and give rights to) the Crown ― i.e. the government. An individual citizen can no more “observe” these treaties than he or she can fail to do so.

The addition of meaningless language further devalues the citizenship oath ― though admittedly it is already not worth very much. Many citizens, new and old alike, including indeed the authors of the guidebook used to help prepare would-be citizens for their citizenship test, misunderstand the reference to the Queen in the existing oath, thinking that it means that “we profess our loyalty to a person”. What is more, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario observed in the course of dismissing a challenge to the constitutionality of the reference to the Queen, in  McAteer v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 578, 121 OR (3d) 1,

a former plaintiff in this proceeding who had taken the oath of the citizenship, has publicly recanted the oath to the Queen while, at the same time, confirming the remainder of the oath. Mr. Charles was informed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration that his recantation had no effect on his citizenship status.

The government of Canada, in other words, thinks that the oath means nothing at all (imagine, by contrast, a judge’s reaction to a witness telling her that he “recants” his promise to say nothing but the truth), and goodness knows what those who take the oath think it means. The Prime Minister’s new plan does not change that.

Nor does it address the unconstitutionality of the oath in its current form. While it has upheld the oath, I have argued here that the McAteer decision is a “parade of judicial horribles“. It misreads the relevant precedents and relies on conclusory assertions about the value of the citizenship oath while ignoring the oath’s history as an embodiment of distrust and the distinctive way in which an oath (contrary to a statutory command) operates by enlisting the conscience of the person who takes it. As I explain in more detail in my article, the citizenship oath in its current form is an imposition on individual conscience that is not justified by any pressing and substantial objective, is not rationally connected to the purposes it supposedly serves, is not minimally restrictive (since it could easily be re-written to accommodate the scruples of those who object to it), and is not proportional to the harms it inflicts on objectors. It is, in short, contrary to s 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and cannot be “saved” by s 1.

This is what the Prime Minister ought to have asked the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister to address. Instead, he chose to focus on a meaningless gesture. I have written here that “oaths of allegiance are like swearwords ― significant yet meaningless, and not something to be said in polite company”. Another feature of swearwords is that their precise contents matters very little; only the emotions they convey are of any significance, as this latest news confirms.