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.

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.

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

The Law of Permanent Campaigning

Election law might have help create permanent campaigns. Can it be used to solve their problems?

The regulation of “money in politics” in Canada follows a bifurcated approach. Fundraising by political parties is subject to strict regulations that apply evenly throughout the electoral cycle. (There are special rule for candidates in elections and party leadership races.) By contrast, the expenditure of money by parties, as well as candidates, and so-called “third parties” ― which is to say, everyone else ― is only regulated, and very tightly regulated at that, during election campaigns, but not at other moments. Indeed, I once wrote that

the free discussion so essential to the existence of democracy and of parliamentary institutions is at no point so constrained as during electoral campaigns. No debate in Canadian society is so regulated as the one at the heart of our parliamentary democracy and thus of the protection of the freedom of expression.

This regulatory approach was developed at a time when election campaigns were mercifully short, and not much electioneering took place outside of the immediate pre-election “writ period”. But what happens if this is no longer so? What if the campaigning becomes “permanent”, to use a word that has been popular for a while now? The Conservative Party of Canada, under Stephen Harper’s leadership, is sometimes said to have brought the permanent campaign to Canada, but everybody’s doing it now, as Anna Lennox Esselment points out in a Policy Options post. The post is only an overview of a book that prof. Esselment has  co-edited with Thierry Giasson and Alex Marland. I have not read it yet ― I will eventually ― so for now I can only venture a couple of comments about prof. Esselment’s post.

One point worth making is the links prof. Esselment makes between “permanent campaigning” and the way in which party leaders are being put at the centre of politics. That political parties have become primarily tools for the promotion of individual leaders is a point made by Bernard Manin in his book on The Principles of Representative Government; I have, I think, shown that it applies with full force to Canada in my article on  “‘Third Parties’ and Democracy 2.0”, where I looked at the 2011 election campaign. (I summarized that part of the article here.) The development of the “permanent campaign” exacerbates this trend, though it did not create it; the days when parties could be seen as the “supermarkets of ideas” that Pierre Trudeau once thought they ought to be are long gone. As I argued in my article, we should not pretend otherwise, and take that into account in revising the ways in which we regulate the democratic process.

Regulation is the subject of another of prof. Esselment’s observations. She points out that “the rules regulating party financing” are among the “factors … contributing to the permanent campaign”. Once rules were in place to prevent “corporations, unions and wealthy individuals” from financing political parties,

the need to fundraise directly from [large numbers of] individual Canadians became a driving force in party operations. Knowing who might donate, how much and when is now crucial.

This in turn fuels the parties’ need for data about voters and potential donors (as well as people who might provide other forms of support). Prof. Esselment notes that this data gathering creates concerns about privacy, and she is right, of course. But another point worth emphasizing is that the story she tells illustrates the inevitability of unintended consequences. The permanent data-hungry campaign was not what those who clamoured for restrictions on party financing were looking to get, but they got it anyway. Their attempts to solve one (perceived) problem, though they may have been successful, also helped create a different one. A whole set of problems, actually, as prof. Esselment explains, having to do not only with the behaviour of parties as organizations, but also with what they do in, and to, Parliament.

This leads me to the final issue I will raise here. Prof. Esselment suggests that more fiddling with the regulation of political fundraising and expenditures is one “way out” of these problems. We might want

to regulate political party financing outside of the writ period and impose annual spending limits. This could limit a party’s ability to launch attack ads against their opponents between elections. … Reintroducing public subsidies for political parties might also reduce their ferocious appetite for information about Canadians, a key part of fundraising efforts.

The suggestion to “regulate party financing outside of the writ period” is a bit vague ― party financing is already regulated at all times, after all, though as I noted above, the regulations tend to apply evenly throughout the electoral cycle. But spending limits outside the writ period, and public financing, would have predictable, if unintended, negative consequences.

Permanent spending limits are, of course, permanent restrictions on the parties’ (and their supporters’) freedom of expression. We might not care too much about that, seeing how parties are vehicles for the aggrandizement of leaders and not contributors to an ideas-based political discourse, though I think that the freedom of expression even of relatively unsavoury actors has a value. But if parties subject themselves to permanent spending limits, they will not leave the rest of civil society alone. They will introduce stringent limits on the ability of “third parties” ― the disparaging name under which every speaker who is not a party or a candidate is known in election law ― to spend and express themselves as well. This is already what happens federally and in some provinces during election campaigns, and the Supreme Court has approved ― in the name of fairness ― the principle of radically lower spending limits for “third parties” than for political parties. Ontario has now gone further and introduced spending limits for “third parties” that apply six months ahead of an election. Permanent limits on party spending will create a strong pressure for what I have called, here and elsewhere, permanent censorship:

[A]n attempt to control “third party” spending between elections … It would extend to all advertising related to political parties or their candidates, including by taking position on issues “associated” with the party or the candidate. Moreover, in addition to dollar limits, the spending control regime includes onerous registration and disclosure requirements. Any individual, group, or organization that wanted to engage in political discourse would have to register with Elections Canada and keep it informed about its income and expenses. In effect, an extension of the rules on “third party” spending between elections would be a step towards the imposition of a regime of wholesale political censorship in Canada.

As I explain in detail in the posts linked to above, the courts may well find that such a regime is an unjustified violation of the protection of the freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But then again, they may not. But it would be no less terrifying even if the courts were in fact prepared to uphold it.

As for public financing for political parties, it is not obvious that it would reduce their hunger for data about us ― if not as potential donors, then as prospective voters (or indeed opponents who might be dissuaded from voting with targeted negative advertising). It would, however, reinforce the dominant position of large parties ― especially, of course, of the winners of the last election ― and prevent smaller, and above all new, parties from competing with more established ones on anything like equal terms. Perhaps these distorting effects are worth it for other reasons (though I’m skeptical), but I don’t think that the uncertain prospect of reduced data collection could justify them.

Permanent campaigns are, obviously, an important political development, and the law must take them into account. I am looking forward to reading the book on which prof. Esselment’s post is based, and perhaps I will have more to say about the subject as a result. But we must be very careful to avoid creating more problems as we try to solve those we have already identified. Indeed, we ought to keep in mind that if these problems arise from previous attempts at regulation, the solution might not be a fuite par en avant, but a retreat.

Losing Our Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, Justice Harlan responded,

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

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

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

Aborting Freedom of Expression

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Justice Anderson concluded that

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

Pronoun Police?

Does human rights legislation let government police people’s use of pronouns?

I have already written here about the way the federal government’ recently introduced Bill C-16 will restrict freedom of expression by adding “gender identity or expression” to the long and growing list of “identifiable grounds” of criminalized hate speech. In that post, I did not touch on the other clauses of the bill, which will similarly add “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. However, that too will interfere with freedom of expression ― and, Eugene Volokh makes clear in a recent Volokh Conspiracy post, in ways that are quite insiduous. indeed, given the narrow ― if still unjustifiable ― scope of the Criminal Code‘s hate speech provisions, this interference will quite possibly be the more significant one.

The issue prof. Volokh highlights is the application of anti-discrimination legislation to police the pronouns that people ― for example, employers or co-workers ― use to refer to transgender persons. He describes a dispute involving an Oregon teacher who insisted on being referred to as “they,” rather than “he” or “she.” Prof. Volokh had previously written about a document in which the New York City Commission on Human Rights opined that transgender persons are entitled to demand that others refer to them by their preferred pronouns, including those that are not in general usage among English-speakers (such as “ze” and “hir”).

Similar issues can arise in Canada, although a cursory CanLII search seems not to bring up decided cases where they were front and centre. Still, the use of pronouns seems to come up at least as a peripheral issue in some human rights disputes. (The government’s “use of binary gender designation on driver’s licenses and health cards” (T.A. v. Ontario (Transportation), 2016 HRTO 17, [1] (interim decision)) and in other contexts is also at issue in some disputes under provincial human rights legislation, but it doesn’t raise the same freedom of expression issues that arise in the private sphere, especially in the context of employment). Moreover, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has published a “Policy on preventing discrimination because of gender identity and gender expression” which states, among other things, that “[g]ender-based harassment can involve …  [r]efusing to refer to a person by their … proper personal pronoun” (18). While the word “proper” is ambiguous insofar as it doesn’t make clear who decides on a pronoun’s propriety,” the policy also states that “[t]rans students have the right to be addressed by their chosen … pronoun” (46; emphasis mine), and makes other references to chosen, and not only “proper” pronouns. This suggests that the Commission would support claims to the effect that use of pronouns other than those preferred by the person to whom they refer are discriminatory.

Why is that a problem? Isn’t referring to people the way they ask to be referred to a matter of common courtesy? Common courtesy, perhaps, although I’m not convinced that common courtesy can require one to use invented words. But, be that as it may, the issue is not what courtesy requires, but whether it is right that the law should be used to enforce these requirements. As prof. Volokh explains, government intervention into the way people speak, especially in the context of private relationships (for example between employer and employee or among fellow-employees in a private firm) is “a major intrusion on … freedom generally, and free speech rights in particular.” He writes:

Compelling people to change the way they use the ordinary, commonplace words of everyday speech … is a serious imposition. Some transgender people claim that using their preferred pronouns is required as a matter of “respect.” But I don’t think it’s at all respectful to demand that others change their speaking this way, and indeed to coerce them into doing this. …

Nor is this just a matter of asking for equal treatment. People don’t generally get to choose their pronouns, come up with new pronouns for themselves, or change the grammatical features of normal words. While the custom is generally to use others’ names, there is no such custom as to pronouns. If a Quaker insisted that people call him “thee” instead of “you” (Quakers generally don’t insist on that, but if everyone gets to choose a pronoun, then why not?), I don’t think we would — or should — feel obligated to do so. Likewise for “they,” used for reasons of sexual identity as opposed to “thee” for religious identity.

Moreover, the insistence on the use of certain pronouns in preference to others is likely to be inherently normative, if not outright political. It is, prof. Volokh says, an attempt “to convey an idea about language and how language should be,” and those who go along with the demands “will likewise be seen as buying into that idea.” Some may think that this idea is innocuous; others may find it good. But, as prof. Volokh notes, “trying to force people to endorse a particular view on these questions by requiring them to use this highly conspicuous, nonstandard usage” is a violation of their freedom of expression. Prof. Volokh argues that it is also unconstitutional under U.S. law.

In Canada, things would not be so clear. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held, notably in Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott, 2013 SCC 11, [2013] 1 S.C.R. 467, that anti-discrimination legislation can restrict the freedom of expression and be found “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” under section 1 of the Charter. On the other, Whatcott emphasized the narrowness of the prohibition on hate speech and the extreme character of the expression which it served to censor. Perhaps significantly, it also stressed “[s]ocietal harm flowing from hate speech” and insisted that “[t]he feelings of the … victim are not the test,” [82] though it is doubtful that this emphasis would survive in the context of a straightforward anti-discrimination case. A further source of difficulty in analyzing the issue is that the focus, in Canadian freedom of expression jurisprudence, on what Whatcott described as “the values underlying freedom of expression” [65] ― self-fulfillment, search for truth, and democratic participation ― isn’t particularly well-suited to resolving a dispute where grammar, rather than the content of expression, is at stake. (This is unsurprising since, as I noted here, these values weren’t intended to be invoked in cases where the law at issue sought to limit expression on the basis of its content; their use in all freedom of expression cases is the product of a doctrinal sleight of hand.)

Ultimately, the constitutionality of the government’s policing of pronoun use under the authority of human rights legislation would probably depend on whether courts think that the objective of ensuring equality for transgender people can be achieved without it ― subject to the courts’ tendency to approach this issue with a good deal of deference to the government ―, and perhaps also on the outcome of a balancing between the restriction on free expression that it would operate and its beneficial effects. I don’t think we can be certain of the outcome, but given the Supreme Court’s general readiness to countenance infringements of the freedom of expression, I suspect that it would be more likely than not to uphold pronoun use requirements imposed by human rights authorities. And that’s without even wading into the mess of the standard of review that courts would apply to these authorities’ decisions…

Yet that would be unfortunate. Whatever we think of the propriety of governmental interference with economic decisions, such as whom to hire or to contract with, in the name of equality, we should agree that similar interference with the very way we speak is a more serious matter. I have no sympathy for the view, often expressed in the context of litigation about same-sex marriage, that courts should not upset longstanding traditions. Courts can certainly do so when no one’s rights or liberties are adversely affected, as was the case with same-sex marriage. But here the situation is different. The issue isn’t that the state would be making itself into an engineer of social change ― it’s that it would be doing so at the expense of individuals whom it would be conscripting for this purpose, and moreover that the conscription concerns not the economic sphere, but speech itself. Again, it may be that the change in question would be beneficial one. But there are means to which the state should not be able to resort even in the pursuit of worthy ends.