What to Thump

This morning the Supreme Court heard the oral argument in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (Ville de), a case on the validity, under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of a municipal by-law authorizing the mayor and those municipal councillors who wish it to publicly read a prayer just prior to the official start of business at municipal council meetings. An additional issue is the permissibility of an installation of religious symbols ― a sculpture of the Sacred Heart and a crucifix in the hall where the council meets. It is hard to tell which way the argument went. Indeed, my own impression, for what little it’s worth, is that at its conclusion, the Court was left with just as many questions as it had in the beginning, and the parties did not do much to help it answer the difficult questions the case presents.

Whether deliberately or because he did not know better, the appellants’ lawyer focused almost exclusively on the “small” questions ― the standard of review, the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the appellants’ expert’s opinion, which had been accepted by the Human Rights Tribunal, which heard the matter in the first instance, and the effect of the prayer and the surrounding controversy on the individual complainant, Alain Simoneau. Even when Justice Lebel directly told him that the Court was interested in the broader questions of principle, the appellants’ lawyer more or less ignored him and stuck to his chosen themes. For him, the case is just an ordinary discrimination complaint and should be treated as such. The Human Rights tribunal heard the evidence and interpreted its home statute; it is entitled to deference; end of story. The big debate about state neutrality? That’s just incidental, he told Justice Lebel; and anyway, he added to an incredulous Justice Wagner, nobody is really against state neutrality or in favour of a state religion. The implications for the prayer at the House of Commons? Well, there are no municipal services being offered at the House of Commons, the municipal legislation saying anyone is entitled to participate does not apply, so it’s not the same. The preamble to the Constitution Act, 1982, which mentions says that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God”? But the mayor of Saguenay wasn’t reciting the preamble! Do you have a test for us to distinguish cultural and religious manifestations, asked Justice Wagner. No, Justice, Each case must be considered on its own facts.

The other parties, however, were more than happy to speak of general principles. They did not always succeed at staying at that level however.

The Canadian Secular Alliance, which intervened to support the appellants, tried to draw a line between official or state action, and the personal manifestations of faith by public employees or even officers. In the former area, religion is proscribed; in the latter it is permitted and indeed may have to be accommodated. It also pointed out that the freedom of religion jurisprudence has moved from a concern only with coercion to one with exclusion, even in the absence of coercion. Even if official prayer is not coercive, it is exclusionary, and thus impermissible.

The Canadian Civil Liberty Liberties Association, for its part, wanted to stress that even a non-denominational prayer is still a religious manifestation. But what’s the big deal with it, anyway, asked Justice Moldaver? Is there some sort of objective standard by which we can judge an interference with a person’s religious freedom? Shouldn’t we just put up with these little things? If the purpose of the state action is religious, the CCLA argued, then its effects are irrelevant. But the whole point, said the Chief Justice, is that we have trouble defining where the “religious” starts. And the CCLA, no more than the appellants, didn’t have a general test for the Courts. Triers of fact can handle that, in light of all the circumstances.

The respondents, for their part, spent a considerable amount of time discussing the meaning of laïcité and state neutrality, although they started by asserting that rather than these principles, it is their limits that are really at issue in this case. And limits there must be, lest we lose our collective frame of reference and end up lost in something called either “radical liberalism” or “unalloyed multiculturalism.” The state must not enforce religious observance of course, but it can have its own religious “colour,” which reflects its history and tradition. That’s what prayer by-law does. And as for the mayor doing the sign of the cross while reciting it, well, people do that sort of thing all time, even baseball players. But, Justice Wagner pointed out, the mayor isn’t just a baseball player. Doesn’t it matter, Justice Lebel asked, that the state not identify with a religion? But the Constitution says the Canadian state is founded on a recognition of the supremacy of God, the respondents argued. It is a theistic state. So long as the prayer is just theistic, it is within the bounds of what the state itself is. And its generically theistic text is what matters, not whatever gestures the mayor might make while reciting it. Anyway, the prayer by-law ― unlike the Lord’s Day Act that was struck down in  R. v. Big M Drug Mart,  [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295 ― is not coercive. And the fact public officials invoke the help of God isn’t at all unusual ― they all do it when they swear their oaths of office, even judges.

For the Evangelical Fellowship, the case is about the nature of a secular society and the place of religion in such a society. A secular society, it argued, is not one devoid of religion, or one where religion has been confined to the private sphere. It is non-sectarian ― but not non-religious. Justice Moldaver wondered, at that point, about a “prayer” by a secularist public official, expressing gratitude for the blessings of Canadian society and saying that none of them have anything to do with a God in which we don’t believe anyway. Would that be OK? It wouldn’t, the Fellowship asserted. But is that different from the Saguenay mayor’s expressing gratitude to God? Well, we cannot favour a specific worldview. So, Justice Abella asked, the state cannot  favour religion over non-religion? No, you have to look at the facts. We have prayers ― and the God Save the Queen, too ― at Remembrance Day ceremonies. And there can be a role for religion in the performance of public officials’ duties, so long these duties are carried out in a neutral fashion. To hold otherwise is to favour non-religion.

Finally, a group of Christian organizations argued that the Court, and everyone, could really have it both ways. Rights need not be weighed and made to prevail one over another ― they can be reconciled. Non-denominational prayer is a form of reconciliation; it allows the state not to sponsor religion while not excluding it. Banning the prayer leaves atheists and agnostics in control of the public square. Let’s all live in harmony instead, without winners and losers.

If there’s one thing we can be pretty sure of, it’s that this wish, or prayer, or whatever it was ― Justice Abella spent some time with the various lawyers wondering what the differences between wishes and prayers were ― will not be granted. Both sides have the same complaint: their opponents want to own the public square, and to exclude them. For the secularists, allowing even a non-denominational prayer to continue means ongoing exclusion, subjectively anyway. The only way reconciliation could happen would be for both sides not to take this whole business too seriously, as Justice Moldaver suggested ― but nobody, I suspect, will take up that suggestion.

And if there must be a winner and a loser, who should it be? There is an old litigation adage: if you have the facts, thump the facts; if you have the law, thump the law; if don’t have either, thump the table. It seems to me, however, that at the Supreme Court, the winning arguments will have a bit of everything ― fact-thumping, law-thumping, and table thumping. This morning, nobody had all three. The appellants, though they made a good case on the facts, and a half-decent one on the law, steadfastly refused to thump the table. The respondents shied away from the facts, which are not exactly favourable to them. And even the interveners could not bring it all together. The Court was looking for a general, thumping principle to dispose of the case ― some kind of demarcation between the the formerly-religious-but-effectively-cultural, the trivially-and-therefore-tolerably religious, and the impermissibly religious. It did not get that.

Pistes de réflexion

Dans mon billet de vendredi, j’ai discuté de la complexité de la pondération du droit à l’image et à la vie privée et de celui à la liberté d’expression et à l’information dans le contexte de la publication d’une photo d’une personne sans le consentement de celle-ci. Comme je l’ai expliqué, je crois que les tribunaux québécois, dont notamment la Cour supérieure dans son récent jugement dans Hammedi c. Cristea, 2014 QCCS 4564, n’accordent pas suffisamment d’importance à la liberté d’expression et au droit du public à l’information, et ont une conception trop large du droit à l’image. L’équilibre voulu par le législateur québécois, qui a, à l’article 36 du Code civil, posé l’intérêt public comme limite au droit d’une personne de ne pas voir son image publiée sans son consentement, n’est pas atteint. Dans ce billet, j’aimerais proposer quelques pistes de réflexion supplémentaires pour ce débat qui, comme je l’expliquais vendredi, a parfois manqué de nuances.

La première piste dont j’aimerais parler a été tracée par Pierre Trudel dans son sage billet sur le jugement Hammedi, oû il a soulevé l’arrêt de la Cour suprême dans Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) c.Travailleurs et travailleuses unis de l’alimentation et du commerce, section locale 401, 2013 CSC 62, [2013] 3 R.C.S. 733, dont j’ai discuté ici. La Cour y a invalidé la législation albertaine de protection de la vie privée en vertu de laquelle un syndicat avait été condamné pour avoir pris et publié des photos de personnes traversant une ligne de piquetage. La Cour suprême a statué que la législation ne reflétait pas une pondération appropriée du droit à la vie privée, qu’elle protégeait de façon excessive, et du droit à la liberté d’expression, qu’elle négligeait. Le prof. Trudel voit en ce jugement la preuve de ce que, pour la Cour suprême, «  la liberté d’expression protège le droit de capter et d’utiliser des images prises dans un espace public ». Il a peut-être raison ― j’aimerais, même qu’il ait raison ― mais je n’en suis pas certain. Le jugement rédigé par les juges Cromwell et Abella insiste spécifiquement sur l’importance, pour un syndicat, « de communiquer avec le public et de le convaincre du bien‑fondé de sa cause, compromettant ainsi sa capacité de recourir à une de ses stratégies de négociation les plus efficaces au cours d’une grève légale » (par. 38). Il s’agit peut-être d’un argument plus ou moins superfétatoire employé par des juges qui sont probablement les deux membre les plus pro-syndicaux de la Cour suprême. Mais peut-être est-ce une indication que le contexte particulier de l’affaire avait une importance réelle pour la décision, et que dans une autre situation, celle en cause dans Hammedi par exemple, la Cour suprême ne pondérerait pas la liberté d’expression et le droit à la vie privée de la même manière. Du reste, la Cour souligne que sa « conclusion ne nous oblige pas à cautionner toutes les activités du syndicat ». Elle se contente d’indiquer que les restrictions à la liberté d’expression imposées par la loi albertaine sont inacceptables, sans préciser, comme elle le fait pourtant souvent, quelle pondération des droits en cause serait constitutionnelle. Je soupçonne, en fait, qu’elle ne le sait pas elle même. Son jugement mérite certainement d’être invoqué dans le contexte québécois, mais il ne nous fournit pas toutes les réponses, loin de là.

Un autre arrêt de la Cour suprême qui pourrait alimenter la réflexion sur la pondération du droit à l’image et de la liberté d’expression est Grant c. Torstar Corp., [2009] 3 RCS 640, 2009 CSC 61. La Cour y statué que le droit de la diffamation, en common law, ne respectait pas suffisamment la liberté d’expression. Pour la Cour suprême, le droit à la réputation, que le droit de la diffamation protège,  est lié, dans une certaine mesure à celui à la protection de la vie privée et aussi à la dignité de la personne.  On peut donc soutenir que l’arrêt Grant, même s’il n’est pas directement pertinent en droit québécois, témoigne donc lui aussi d’une volonté de la Cour suprême de donner plus de poids à la liberté d’expression de sa pondération avec des droits reliés à la vie privée et à la dignité, dont le droit à l’image est un aspect, selon le Code civil. Cette volonté résulte entre autres de la conscience de la Cour de l’effet paralysant (« chilling effect ») que peuvent avoir les règles insuffisamment protectrices de la liberté d’expression sur la communication de messages qui devraient pourtant être entendus dans le cadre de la recherche de la vérité et du libre débat démocratique.

Un autre facteur dont la Cour suprême a tenu compte et qui mérite qu’on s’y attarde en réfléchissant à la meilleure interprétation de l’article 36 du Code civil est le rôle des médias. La solution adoptée dans Grant consistait en la création, en droit de la diffamation en common law, d’une défense de « communication responsable concernant les questions d’intérêt public ». S’inspirant de pratiques du « journalisme responsable », la Cour a tout de même voulu protéger tous les « propagateurs de nouvelles et d’information », y compris ceux qui utilisent « de nouveaux modes de communication (beaucoup d’entre eux en ligne) permettant de traiter de questions d’intérêt public et ne faisant pas appel à des journalistes » (par. 96).  la Cour a souligné qu’une publication qui respecte les normes du journalisme pourrait ne pas résister à une analyse devant un tribunal et que, par conséquent, « exiger que la couverture des questions d’intérêt public atteigne à une certitude judiciaire peut aboutir à empêcher la communication de faits qu’une personne raisonnable tiendrait pour fiables et qui sont pertinents et importants pour le débat public » (par. 53). La situation dans Hammedi, où la Cour supérieure, sans véritablement se demander si la photo en cause était pertinente au débat public et pouvait faire avancer celui-ci, ou si sa publication était justifiée comme une pratique journalistique responsable, a imposé sa compréhension de ce qui était « nécessaire » pour publier l’article qui l’accompagnait ressemble à celle que la Cour suprême a cherché à corriger en matière de diffamation.

Une dernière piste de réflexion que je voudrais proposer, mais non la moindre, concerne l’impact des nouvelles technologies sur la mise en oeuvre du droit à l’image. Encore à l’époque où la Cour suprême a décidé, dans Aubry c. Éditions Vice‑Versa, [1998] 1 R.C.S. 591, que la publication d’une photo d’une personne sans son consentement constituait une faute, seuls des journalistes et quelques hobbyistes avaient les moyens de prendre et de publier de telles photos. Or, les choses ont bien changé. Presque tout le monde a désormais un téléphone cellulaire doté d’une caméra, et deux Québécois sur trois sont sur Facebook. Et il est rare qu’on demande le consentement préalable d’une personne avant d’en publier la photo sur Facebook (ou un autre réseau social). Dans la mesure ou cette personne accepte par la suite d’être « taguée » (désolé, j’ignore s’il y a un terme français!) dans cette photo, on peut en inférer son consentement rétrospectif, mais qu’en est-il de celle qui ne l’accepte pas ou, simplement, n’est pas sur Facebook, ou encore de celle dont on publie une photo sur une plateforme qui n’offre pas de fonctionnalité équivalente? Il me semble bien que ces personnes là pourraient poursuivre l’auteur de la photo. Est-ce un résultat souhaitable? Et même si ce l’est, force est de constater qu’il existe un écart très considérable entre la règle juridique, telle que posée dans le Code civil et dans Aubry, et la norme sociale qui a émergé en réaction au changement technologique après l’adoption de cette règle.

On le sait, la publication sur internet d’images intimes de personnes qui n’y ont jamais consenti est un problème réel et grave. Les conséquences, pour les personnes affectées, sont affreuses, voire même tragiques. Tant mieux si l’article 36 du Code civil pourrait aider les victimes à obtenir réparation des responsables. Cependant, une règle qui est appropriée dans le cas d’images qui, en raison de leur contenu, sont vouées à rester (très) privées ne l’est pas nécessairement pour celles qui sont parfaitement banales, et encore moins pour celles qui peuvent raisonnablement servir à illustrer des sujets d’intérêt public. Comme le dit le prof. Trudel, il est temps que la Cour d’appel et, éventuellement, la Cour suprême se penchent sur les nombreuses questions que le droit à l’image et sa mise oeuvre en droit québécois soulèvent en 2014. Le législateur aussi, d’ailleurs.

Une image et mille maux

Le jugement de la Cour supérieure du Québec dans Hammedi c. Cristea, 2014 QCCS 4564, condamnant un journaliste à payer 7000$ de dommages et intérêts à un couple dont il avait, sans son consentement, pris et publié la photo parce que la dame portait un niqab suscite beaucoup de controverse. Éloïse Gratton a, fort poliment, suggéré que cette décision aurait des conséquences malheureuses. Pierre Trudel, avec moins de retenue, a soutenu qu’elle « accentue encore plus le déséquilibre entre la liberté d’expression et le droit à l’image qui bénéficie, au Québec, d’une inquiétante suprématie sur la liberté d’expression ». La fédération des journalistes professionnels du Québec l’a dénoncé comme une « dangereuse [...] atteinte à la liberté de presse ». Hier, le ton est encore monté, avec les billets, publiés sur le Blogue Politique de l’Actualité, de Frédéric Bastien, qui dénonçait, comme à son habitude, une nouvelle manifestation de « de l’idéologie antiraciste qui imprègne les bien-pensants » et de « l’activisme judiciaire », et de Jérôme Lussier, qui défend le jugement de la Cour supérieure comme reflétant un nécessaire respect de la vie privée de citoyens vulnérable.

Pour ma part, je partage l’avis du prof. Trudel. La décision de la Cour supérieure reflète, comme il l’explique, une conception trop large du « droit à l’image » et, surtout, une conception bien trop étroite de l’intérêt public et de la liberté d’expression. Même si les vitupérations de M. Bastien, comme toujours, sont excessives et manquent désespérément d’assise factuelle ou juridique, Me Lussier, à mon avis, néglige beaucoup de nuances importantes en y répliquant.

Les faits de l’affaire sont simples. Le défendeur, qui publie un petit journal à Québec, voit une dame portant un niqab, la demanderesse dans un marché aux puces local. Il constate, comme écrira-t-il plus tard, que « [s]ur certains visages se lisait facilement la consternation ». Il prend donc quelques photos, où la dame et son mari, le demandeur, sont visibles, le visage du demandeur identifiable. Il en publie une dans son journal, dans une article qu’il intitule « Le voile intégral est de retour à Québec ». Les demandeurs en ont vent et, après avoir considéré la proposition du demandeur de publier une réplique, choisissent plutôt de le poursuivre pour atteinte à la réputation de la demanderesse (un recours que la Cour a rejeté) et violation de leur droit à l’image.

L’article 36 du Code civil du Québec dispose entre autres que « peu[t] être [...] considéré[...] comme [une] atteinte[...] à la vie privée d’une personne [le fait d'] [u]tiliser son nom, son image, sa ressemblance ou sa voix à toute autre fin que l’information légitime du public ». Cette disposition met en oeuvre l’article 5 de la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne (alias la Charte québécoise), qui dispose que « [t]oute personne a droit au respect de sa vie privée ». Appliquant cette dernière disposition (mais pas directement l’art. 36 du Code civil, qui n’était pas encore en vigueur au moment des faits) dans Aubry c. Éditions Vice‑Versa, [1998] 1 R.C.S. 591, a statué que la publication d’une imagine d’une personne où celle-ci était identifiable constitue prima facie une atteinte à sa vie privée, et donc une faute. Elle ne sera cependant pas considérée comme fautive si elle répond à « [l]’intérêt du public à être informé » (par. 57), ce qui sera notamment lorsque la personne en cause est quelqu’un « dont la réussite professionnelle dépend de l’opinion publique » ou encore « un individu [...] appelé à jouer un rôle de premier plan dans une affaire qui relève du domaine public, par exemple, un procès important, une activité économique majeure ayant une incidence sur l’emploi de fonds publics, ou une activité qui met en cause la sécurité publique » (par. 58) ou une personne se trouvant « accessoirement » dans un lieu ou un événement public ― mais pas si la personne est le sujet central de la photo (comme c’était d’ailleurs le cas dans Aubry, où une image de la demanderesse avait été utilisée pour illustrer un essai sur « la vie urbaine »).

Comme l’explique le prof. Trudel, c’est là « une conception extrêmement étroite de la notion d’intérêt public ». Or, comme il le souligne, dans Hammedi, la Cour supérieure la rétrécit encore davantage. En effet, non seulement la Cour note-t-elle (par. 42) que « les demandeurs n’exercent aucune activité publique et n’ont acquis aucune notoriété publique pouvant justifier que leur image devienne matière d’intérêt public », mais elle insiste aussi (par. 43) pour dire que « l’article en question pouvait facilement être écrit sans nécessiter d’y juxtaposer la photo des demandeurs ». Elle trouve donc que le défendeur est en faute et, constatant les dommages moraux causés aux demandeurs par la publication de leur photo, le condamne  à leur verser un dédommagement. Pour reprendre les mots du prof. Trudel, selon la Cour, « [l]e fait qu’une personne se trouve dans l’espace public et affiche un trait caractéristique qui a des échos dans l’actualité ne relèverait pas de l’intérêt public ». Ceci lui paraît troublant. À moi aussi. Comme le prof. Trudel, je suis également troublé par le fait que la Cour considère qu’elle n’a pas à laisser de marge d’appréciation au journaliste sur la façon dont son histoire devrait être racontée ou illustrée.

Je reconnais pourtant la force du contre-argument, qui consisterait à dire qu’un citoyen ordinaire, qui ne recherche pas la notoriété, ne devrait pas avoir à consentir à voir son image en quelque sorte expropriée pour servir d’illustration pour une histoire qui, si elle relève de l’actualité, ne le concerne pas personnellement. On pourrait peut-être tracer un parallèle avec le projet du gouvernement fédéral d’autoriser les partis politiques à se servir de contenus journalistiques dans leur publicité, outrepassant les droits d’auteur des médias. Cependant, j’ai tendance à penser que la liberté d’expression et le droit du public à l’information doivent prévaloir dans ce conflit, du moment qu’on parle bien d’une image captée dans un lieu public et qui n’a pas été prise ou manipulée de façon à être humiliante pour la personne en cause. Nous sommes des êtres visuels, nous avons besoin d’illustrations, y compris pour des histoires qui font état d’une tendance sociale plutôt que des faits et gestes d’une personne en particulier. Obtenir le consentement d’une personne à servir d’illustration n’est pas toujours réaliste, et une règle de droit qui n’impose  pas cette exigence me semble être, malgré ses coûts évidents, la solution la plus juste au conflit entre les intérêts en cause. Et, à défaut d’une telle règle générale, il faudrait une compréhension de l’intérêt public bien plus large que celle de la Cour supérieure dans Hammedi ou celle de la Cour suprême dans Aubry.

Cela dit, la décision de la Cour supérieure n’est pas un comble de l’activisme et de l’absurdité comme le prétend M. Bastien. Je suis, pour une fois, d’accord avec lui lorsqu’il soutient qu’elle illustre l’insuffisance de la protection de la liberté d’expression dans les Chartes canadienne et québécoise ― telles qu’interprétées par les tribunaux. Cependant, ce résultant n’est pas le seul fait d’un « activisme » des juges. C’est, après tout, le Code civil du Québec, adopté par l’Assemblée nationale, qui restreint notre droit de publier une image d’une personne sans son consentement et qui introduit une notion, non-définie, de l’« information légitime du public ». Un terme aussi vague et flexible doit, inévitablement, être interprété par les tribunaux ― et le législateur le sait fort bien lorsqu’il l’emploie dans sa loi. L’interprétation qu’en a fait la Cour supérieure est peut certes être critiquée (même si elle peut, comme je l’explique ci-haut, aussi être défendue), mais il faut bien reconnaître que c’est une interprétation plausible, qui n’est assurément pas le fait d’une prétendue « idéologie antiraciste », mais simplement d’une conception possiblement trop large du droit à la vie privée.

Surtout, il faut souligner que le législateur conserve le pouvoir d’intervenir et d’étendre la notion de l’intérêt du public à être informé s’il trouve que l’interprétation du Code civil par les tribunaux est trop restrictive. Jusqu’à présent, l’Assemblée nationale n’a pas choisi de le faire. Ce n’est pas la faute des juges, et encore moins celle des Chartes. M. Bastien croit que «les parlementaires [...] sont meilleurs [que les juges] à déterminer l’endroit où les droits doivent s’arrêter ». Eh bien, voici l’occasion parfaite de leur adresser des reproches, puisqu’ils sont libres de le faire dans le cas présent. Par ailleurs, l’attaque à laquelle il se livre contre la Charte canadienne est sans pertinence aucune dans ce contexte. Non seulement la Charte canadienne ne contient-elle pas de garantie générale du droit à la vie privée, mais aussi, et surtout, elle est carrément inapplicable aux rapports entre parties privées qui seuls sont en cause dans un cas comme Hammedi.

Me Lussier a donc raison de critiquer les vitupérations gratuites de M. Bastien. Cependant, dans son souci de défendre les citoyens musulmans que M. Bastien prend pour cible dans son combat contre la religion (non-Catholique) et le multiculturalisme, il me semble faire bien trop peu de place à la liberté d’expression. Car, s’il a raison de critiquer la médiatisation excessive dont ont fait l’objet les pratiques des religions minoritaires au Québec ces dernières années, s’il a raison de dénoncer le discours hostile, les gestes haineux et le harcèlement dont les adhérents de ces religions ont été victimes, s’il a eu mille fois raison de combattre la Charte de la honte péquiste qui visait à profiter de l’hostilité populaire à ces religions, il n’en reste pas moins que les opinions de nos concitoyens sont des sujets d’intérêt public, ne serait-ce que parce qu’en démocratie, leurs opinions influencent aussi les lois sous lesquelles nous vivons. Et cela inclut leurs opinions religieuses puisque la séparation de l’Église de l’État, la laïcité, est une contrainte qui s’impose justement à l’État et non aux citoyens qui sont libres, eux, de laisser leurs croyances religieuses influencer leurs choix politiques.

Me Lussier me semble donc détourner le débat en insinuant que critique le jugement dans Hammedi revient à dire que les « protections [de la vie privée] ne bénéficient pas également à toutes les catégories de citoyens. Les Québécoises voilées, de même que leurs conjoint et enfants, n’ont donc pas les mêmes droits que les Québécoises non voilées ». Ce n’est pas que les Québécoises voilées ont moins de droits que les autres. La question est, justement, de savoir quels droits tous les Québécois devraient avoir. Droit à la vie privée, et droit à la liberté d’expression. On peut, sans adopter une « idéologie anti-antiraciste », penser que les opinions et les pratiques religieuses sont des objets légitimes de l’intérêt et du débat publics, et que ce débat doit pouvoir être illustré avec des images, captées sur la place publique, de citoyens exprimant ces opinions ou s’engageant dans ces pratiques.

La question de la pondération de la liberté d’expression et du droit à la vie privée qui s’est posée dans Hammedi ― et qui se reposera, puisque le défendeur a annoncé, sur le site de son journal, qu’il ira en appel ― est difficile, comme le sont la plupart des questions concernant la pondération de droits. On peut avoir, sur cette question, une position tranchée d’un côté ou d’un autre, mais on doit, par souci d’honnêteté intellectuelle, reconnaître l’importance des arguments contraires. Il est regrettable que des provocateurs ignorants de la trempe de M. Bastien s’en servent pour tenter de faire avancer leur dada idéologique. Il ne l’est pas moins que des gens intelligents et bien-intentionnés, comme Me Lussier, en viennent à en perdre de vue la complexité et les nuances.

ADDENDUM: J’explore quelques pistes de réflexion supplémentaires ici.

The Shootout

This morning the Supreme Court heard the oral argument regarding Québec’s demand for the long-gun registry data which the federal government wants to destroy, pursuant to the legislation which abolished the registry two years ago. I have uploaded a very rough (and probably somewhat incomplete) transcript of the argument here. In this post, I will summarize it and offer some more or less random thoughts.

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Québec argued that the gun registry had always been a joint venture between the federal government and the provinces. That’s how it was “sold” by the federal government when it was set up, and that’s how all the parties involved, including for example the RCMP, had always seen it. Federal and provincial firearms regulations are inextricably linked. Thus the Chief Firearms Officer in Québec, although appointed pursuant to federal law to execute tasks set out in federal law, is a high-ranking provincial police officer, and also executes tasks under provincial legislation.

Accordingly, the principle of co-operative federalism required that even if the federal government was no longer interested its own objectives through that venture, it allow Québec to pursue its own. The federal government, Québec pointed out, doesn’t dispute that the province could set up a gun registry of its own, to pursue purposes related to health and safety, crime prevention, and the administration of justice. It should not be able to frustrate the realization of these purposes by destroying the gun registry data.

And in response to the federal government’s claim that the destruction of the data is necessary to protect gun-owners’ personal data, Québec argued that not only was the data that would actually be destroyed ― the guns’ serial numbers ― not very significant, but its own data-protection regime was as good as the federal one, and indeed better. (Québec’s lawyer pointed out, with a bit of snark, that the provision requiring the destruction of the gun registry data precluded the application of some of the federatol data-protection legislation.)

The federal government’s main argument was that it was Parliament that had created the gun registry, and Parliament was free to change its mind as to the registry’s effectiveness and usefulness. Having changed its mind, it was free to abolish the registry ― which meant destroying it ― and did not have to consult the provinces. Imposing a duty to consult the provinces before enacting legislation that affects them would not be an application of the principle of co-operative federalism, which is limited to making it possible for federal and provincial law to operate simultaneously in the same area ― it would transform the structure of Canadian federalism. It would also run counter to the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty, which makes a legislature free to overturn any agreement entered into by the executive, even if implemented in legislation enacted by a previous legislature. And, having chosen to abolish the registry, Parliament logically had to destroy the data. Even the former Privacy Commissioner confirmed that the principles of privacy law require the destruction of any personal data one no longer has use for.

The federal government tried hard to counteract the impression that the gun registry was anything like a joint venture between it and the provinces. It contended that even though its operation involves a provincial employee acting as a Chief Firearms Officer, that person executes tasks set out in federal legislation and regulations, and the province is fully compensated for the time she spends doing so. In any event, it is the federal Registrar of Firearms who controls the gun-registry data.

The federal government also made a point of questioning Québec’s need for the data it wants to destroy. It pointed to the recent decision in Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada, 2014 ONSC 5140 (about which I blogged here), where the Superior Court found that the efficacy of the registry in preventing domestic violence had not been established, and that even police officers disagreed about the effectiveness of the registry. It also pointed out that, unlike for handguns, the registry did not indicate where a long gun was stored, so that the police could not rely on it alone to find out whether a person was likely to have a gun in a particular place or not.

The bottom line, for the federal government, is that if Québec wants to create its own registry, it must do so on its own, without federal help. Parliament was committed to the conclusion that the registry had been an unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion upon the privacy of law-abiding citizens everywhere ― including in Québec. It did not wish to go back on that commitment. If Québec wants to set up a registry for its own ends, it should assume the political and financial costs of doing so.

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It is difficult to know what the Court will do with this, if only because so many the judges were silent during the argument. Not a single one of the non-Québec judges asked a question of Québec’s lawyer, and, among them, only the Chief Justice and, once or twice Justice Abella, questioned the federal government’s lawyer. The Québec judges, who did thus almost all of the questioning, seemed somewhat sympathetic to the province’s position, and skeptical of the federal government’s claim that it could act unilaterally. Such skepticism would, indeed, be in keeping with the Supreme Court’s usual preference for requiring agreement between the different levels of government. But the federal government’s arguments based on Parliamentary sovereignty were quite powerful, and they may have had some effect.

It may all come down to the Court’s comprehension of how the registry operated. Will it, like Québec’s Superior Court, agree with the province that it really was a joint venture, so that one of the partners is entitled entitled not only to keep it going despite the other losing interest, but also to receive the other partner’s help for doing so? Or will it agree with the federal government’s characterization of the provincial role in the operation of the registry as very limited and thus insufficient to support any duties once the decision to discontinue the registry has been made, as the Québec Court of Appeal concluded? Even among the judges who spoke this morning, it is very difficult to say who thought what on this point.

But the Court may also look for a way out of the dilemma. Early on in Québec’s argument, Justice Wagner asked whether the Court might simply declare that the parties had a duty to negotiate. Québec’s lawyer seemed skeptical, although he eventually said that if the declaration had enough force to make the federal government hand over the data, he would be happy with it. Yet I find it difficult to see how that would work. Declaring a duty to negotiate might have worked (hypothetically of course) in the secession context, where the end point of a successful negotiation would be clear (i.e. a peaceful separation), although the details would need to be worked out. Here, the parties have an irreconcilable disagreement over what the end state would be (data handover or data destruction). What can they negotiate about?

It seems to me that the court cannot fudge ― either Québec is entitled to the registry data, or the federal government can destroy it. As in a hockey shootout, there can be only one winner here.

Neither Here Nor There

I have summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, the B.C. hearing fees case, here. Over a furious dissent by Justice Rothstein, the Court held that while provinces can impose some hearing fees, the fees cannot constitutionally result in “undue hardship” on litigants, preventing them from asserting their legal claims. The Court found that the B.C. fees do not pass this test, and declared them unconstitutional. As I wrote in the conclusion of my earlier post, the majority’s reasons leave some important questions unanswered. They also rest on shaky foundations, which Justice Rothstein’s dissent exposes. Yet Justice Rothstein’s own arguments are even less persuasive than the majority’s.

Perhaps most significantly in practical terms, the majority’s reasons do a poor job of answering the question of what fee or fee and exemption structure is constitutionally acceptable. The threshold the majority sets out for the acceptability of hearing fees ― that they must not cause “undue hardship” to litigants or make them “sacrifice reasonable expenses” ― strikes me as quite vague.

It also seems to have been formulated with only individual litigants in mind. But what about corporations? Not big corporations for which litigation is just another business expense but small businesses ― say a convenience store engaged in a dispute with a supplier ― or non-profits? I suspect that to such litigants, the BC hearing fees can represent a significant expense, and perhaps a prohibitive one in some cases. But how will the “undue hardship” and “reasonable expenses” tests apply to them? Yet the majority’s rationale for finding some fees unconstitutional, which is that they interfere with the courts’ core jurisdiction and the Rule of Law, ought to apply to corporate litigants as well as to individual ones.

Most importantly, Justice Rothstein is right to point out that the majority’s pronouncements on the role that exemptions from fees can play in a constitutional hearing fees scheme are contradictory. As he explains, the majority says that “as a general rule, hearing fees must be coupled with an exemption that allows judges to waive the fees” (par. 48), while also saying that making litigants “come before the court, explain why they are indigent and beg the court to publicly acknowledge this status and excuse the payment of fees” (par. 60) can be demeaning and burdensome. Whether the exemption is framed in terms of “impoverishment” or “undue hardship” changes nothing to this fact; nor does it alleviate the majority’s “concern the exemption application itself may contribute to hardship” (par. 60). It is perhaps worth recalling that, as I noted at the time, at oral argument Justice Moldaver seemed convinced that an exemption regime was “unworkable.” The majority reasons (which Justice Moldaver signed on to!) do not really address this concern.

And then, there’s the question of whether a province could impose fees for hearings in provincial court (to which s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, does not apply). Or, for that matter, in administrative tribunals. Now even British Columbia seems not to impose hearing fees in provincial courts, so this particular question might be purely academic but, at least in theory, anchoring the protection of access to adjudicative fora in s. 96, as the majority does, seems to suggest that access to other adjudicators ― which, no less than superior courts, even if under their supervision, engage in the determination of private and public law rights of individuals ― is not protected.

Beyond these practical worries, which may end up generating yet more costly and time-consuming litigation if British Columbia or some other province imposes fees coupled with an “undue hardship” exemption, the majority’s reasons are theoretically weak. Section 96 is a very dubious ground on which to rest a conclusion that hearing fees are unconstitutional. Justice Rothstein is quite right that the fees do not “limit the type of powers [s. 96 courts] may exercise.” They do not, in other words, interfere with these courts’ jurisdiction as it had been understood in the s. 96 jurisprudence, which has always been concerned with the removal of types of cases (e.g. judicial review of administrative tribunals) from the superior courts’ purview. The fact that courts may have fewer litigants able or willing to go before them cannot, in itself, be an interference with their jurisdiction. (If it were, a great many rules encouraging litigants to settle their dispute or to use alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms would be unconstitutional too.) As I have argued before, “the real issue [with the hearing fees] is not that the courts are being interfered with, but that individual litigants are.”

In the post just quoted, I argued that the Court should resolve the case on that ground, because hearing fees have the effect of preventing litigants from asserting their legal rights, which legislatures cannot abrogate, if at all, without clearly stating their intent to do so ― something the hearing fees do not do. So I am happy that the majority discusses the rule of law, even though it does not make that principle the main ground for its decision, and doesn’t go as far as the I would have liked. The majority is right that there cannot be a Rule of Law if people cannot assert their rights in court, and that “[i]f people cannot challenge government actions in court, individuals cannot hold the state to account ― the government will be, or be seen to be, above the law” (par. 40). To my mind, that ― rather than s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 ― is the key to resolving “the fundamental issue of principle” regarding the constitutionality of hearing fees, all the more since there is already a line of cases, culminating in Air Canada v. B.C. (A.G.), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 539, standing for the proposition that legislatures or governments cannot indirectly deny citizens’ constitutional rights by preventing them from asserting them in court. Unfortunately, the majority does not mention this jurisprudence (which was also ignored by the parties and the interveners). Instead, it tries to link the Rule of Law to s. 96, but the connection seems to me awkward and unconvincing.

It is, perhaps, an attempt to rebut Justice Rothstein’s criticisms, though the majority opinion never addresses his dissent directly. But while I share Justice Rothstein’s skepticism at the majority’s reading of s. 96, I think that his brutal attack on its reliance on the Rule of Law misses the mark. Justice Rothstein argues that an unwritten principle, especially one so “vague and fundamentally disputed” (par. 100) as the Rule of Law, cannot justify striking down laws on the basis of their content. But it’s not the substance of a law that is at issue with the hearing fees ― it’s the fact that litigants will be unable to assert or defend their rights under any law, whatever its content. In Jeremy Waldron’s terminology, the conception of the Rule of Law that is at issue here is neither a substantive nor a formal one (both of which the Supreme Court had rejected in the past), but a procedural one. Justice Rothstein, in my view, has no answer to the majority’s point that allowing hearing fees to prevent people from defending their legal rights places the government above the law, which the Court had already said would be a Rule of Law problem.

More generally, Justice Rothstein’s approach to constitutional interpretation. His position is an absolutist one ― since hearing fees are not prohibited by the constitutional text, they are permissible, whatever their consequences. Yet even the B.C. government did not take that view and accepted, at oral argument, that in the absence of a suitable exemption, fees could create a constitutional problem. Justice Rothstein’s paeans to democracy mask the fact that the fees are imposed by the rules of court, not by legislation actually enacted by elected representatives of the people, and ignore the problem of near-total ignorance of access to justice issues by the electorate, which I describe here.

The majority, at least, ends up in the right place, more or less, although its reasons leave a lot to be desired from a theoretical standpoint and fail to answer many important practical questions. Justice Rothstein makes some important points in criticizing them, but his critique ultimately fails.

For Sale, at the Right Price

This morning, the Supreme Court of Canada has released its judgment in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, the B.C. hearing fees case. A five-judge majority led by the Chief Justice holds that although a province can, in principle, impose some form of fees for access to courts, the fees British Columbia levied on litigants who set their cases down for trial in the province’s courts, escalating to 800$ per day starting on the 10th day of a trial, are an unconstitutional interference with the core jurisdiction of superior courts protected by s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 as interpreted in light of the Rule of Law principle. Justice Cromwell, concurring in the result, would have held that the rules imposing the fees are, in their present form, not authorized by their enabling legislation, and thus invalid. Justice Rothstein, dissenting furiously , would have found that the fees are constitutional. In this post, I will summarize the majority decision and the dissent (setting aside Justice Cromwell’s concurrence). I will comment in a separate post.

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The Chief Justice holds that, as a general matter, provinces are allowed to impose hearing fees, as well as fees of other sorts, on people who go to court, pursuant to their power under subs. 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, to “make Laws in relation to … [t]he Administration of Justice in the Province, including the Constitution, Maintenance, and Organization of the Provincial Courts.” While there is a right of access to courts, its exercise can be subject to conditions. Fees “may be used to defray some of the cost of administering the justice system, to encourage the efficient use of court resources, and to discourage frivolous or inappropriate use of the courts” (par. 21). The Chief Justice rejects the distinction that the appellants and some interveners defended at oral argument between hearing fees and fees of other kinds (such as filing fees) which courts in every province levy. The real issue, for her, is not “the type of the fee,” but whether the effect of its imposition is “to deny certain people access to the courts” (par. 22).

According to the Chief Justice, that consequence, a denial of access to courts, is prohibited by s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 which acts as a limit on the province’s power over the administration of justice. On its face, s. 96 merely provides that the federal government is responsible or appointing the judges of superior courts. But it has long been held to imply the existence of an irreducible core of jurisdiction in these courts as well, which the provinces (or Parliament) cannot take away from them. The Chief Justice holds (par. 32) that hearing fees can have that effect:

The historic task of the superior courts is to resolve disputes between individuals and decide questions of private and public law. Measures that prevent people from coming to the courts to have those issues resolved are at odds with this basic judicial function.  The resolution of these disputes and resulting determination of issues of private and public law, viewed in the institutional context of the Canadian justice system, are central to what the superior courts do. Indeed, it is their very book of business.

Thus hearing fees (or, presumably, any other court fees), cannot constitutionally “deny people the right to have their disputes resolved in the superior courts” (par. 36).

For the Chief Justice, “this suffices to resolve the fundamental issue of principle in this appeal” (par. 38). Nonetheless, she also explains at some length that her conclusion is also supported by the constitutional principle of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law requires that people be able access courts, which in the Canadian constitutional framework means first and foremost superior courts. The Chief Justice argues (par. 40) that

[i]n the context of legislation which effectively denies people the right to take their cases to court, concerns about the maintenance of the rule of law are not abstract or theoretical. If people cannot challenge government actions in court, individuals cannot hold the state to account ― the government will be, or be seen to be, above the law.  If people cannot bring legitimate issues to court, the creation and maintenance of positive laws will be hampered, as laws will not be given effect.  And the balance between the state’s power to make and enforce laws and the courts’ responsibility to rule on citizen challenges to them may be skewed.

The Chief Justice concludes (par. 42) that

[t]he right of the province to impose hearing fees is limited by constitutional constraints.  In defining those constraints, the Court does not impermissibly venture into territory that is the exclusive turf of the legislature.  Rather, the Court is ensuring that the Constitution is respected.

Any fees for access to courts, the Chief Justice says, cannot “cause undue hardship to the litigant” (par. 45) ― that is, they cannot “require[] litigants … to sacrifice reasonable expenses in order to bring a claim” (par. 46). If hearing fees are imposed, they “must” (par. 48)

be coupled with an exemption that allows judges to waive the fees for people who cannot, by reason of their financial situation, bring non-frivolous or non-vexatious litigation to court.

The BC hearing fees regime, the Chief Justice holds, does not pass this test. It provides an exemption from fees for litigants who are “impoverished,” but the economic evidence is that the fees are so high that even those who would not ordinarily cannot be called poor cannot really afford them. It will not do to simply read the word “impoverished” broadly enough to cover middle-class litigants unable “to pay a fee that amounts to a month’s net salary” (par. 59). Requiring litigants to apply for the “impoverishment” exemption is also problematic because it may be “an affront to dignity and imposes a significant burden on the potential litigant of adducing proof of impoverishment” , a burden that will be worse in less “clear cases of impoverishment” (par. 60). Furthermore, the current escalating fees regime does not really promote efficient litigation. It penalizes those whose trials are long, not necessarily those whose trials are inefficient, and requires payment from a party who may not even have the control over the trial’s length, a problem which the possibility of an eventual compensation by way of an award of costs does not really address.

The Chief Justice considers the possibility of broadening the exemption for “impoverished” litigants by reading in the the terms “in need,” as the Court of Appeal had done, but rejects it. It is not clear, in her view, that the provincial legislature or government would have taken that approach, nor is it clear that even the broader exemption would be sufficient. The Chief Justice decides “to declare the hearing fee scheme as it stands unconstitutional and leave it to the legislature or the Lieutenant Governor in Council to enact new provisions, should they choose to do so” (par. 68).

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To Justice Rothstein, this is a usurpation (though he is too polite to use this word) of the “territory that is quintessentially that of the legislature” (par. 82). In his view, “there is no express constitutional right to access the civil courts without hearing fees” (par. 81), and absent a violation of such a clear constitutional right, courts ought to stay away from policy disagreements ― including, in this case, a policy disagreement about who should pay for the judicial system, and how. For Justice Rothstein, the conclusion that s. 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, authorizes the imposition of hearing fees should be the end of the matter. He “take[s] exception to the majority striking down the British Columbia hearing fee scheme on a novel reading of s. 96 and the rule of law” (par. 85); “free (or at least affordable) access to courts is a laudable goal” (par. 86), but one for the political branches of government to realize as they see fit.

In Justice Rothstein’s view, the hearing fees do not trench on the superior courts’ core jurisdiction; limits on access are not the same thing as removals of jurisdiction. “The hearing fees,” he concludes, “are a financing mechanism and do not go to the very existence of the court as a judicial body or limit the types of powers it may exercise” (par. 90). Justice Rothstein faults the majority for not applying the existing test to determine whether the core jurisdiction of s. 96 courts is infringed, effectively accusing it of abandoning the law because it does not support its preferred conclusions.

Justice Rothstein is similarly unimpressed with the majority’s invocation of the underlying principle of the Rule of Law. Underlying principles might serve to fill “gaps” in the constitutional text, but there is no gap here. The constitutional text, which includes specific rights of access to courts in Charter and criminal cases, but not in other situations, must remain supreme. “In using an unwritten principle to support expanding the ambit of s. 96 to such an extent,” Justice Rothstein says, “the majority subverts the structure of the Constitution and jeopardizes the primacy of the written text” (par. 93). Moreover, the right of access derived from s. 96 is “absolute” and not subject to the limitations and derogations which apply even to “fundamental” rights under the Charter. Justice Rothstein also points out that in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 47, the Supreme Court had suggested that the Rule of Law cannot serve to strike down legislation on the basis of “its content.” To do so is to undermine both the power of the democratically elected legislatures and the certainty of the written constitution provisions.

Besides, Justice Rothstein argues, the hearing fees do not really have the unfortunate effects which the majority attributes to the. The exemption for “impoverished” litigants can apply “where the hearing fees themselves would be a source of impoverishment” (par. 107). Cost awards can offset some the impact of the hearing fees. And courts themselves have a responsibility to keep trials short, thus reducing the amount of hearing fees due. Long (and thus costly) trials are exceptional, and should be even more so, something the fees can help achieve. Finally, Justice Rothstein points to the inconsistency of the majority’s saying both that judges must have discretion to waive any hearing fees and that the process of applying for such an exemption may be a burden and an affront to the dignity of the litigants.

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Justice McEwen at first instance, argued that “some things,” including access to civil courts, “are not for sale.” The Court of Appeal in effect held that selling access to courts is fine so long as it is given away for free to those “in need.” For its part, the majority of the Supreme Court seems to have some misgivings about the sale of access, but concludes that it is tolerable provided that the price is not too high. But its decision leaves some important questions unanswered, as I will argue in my next post. It also rests on shaky foundations, which Justice Rothstein’s dissent exposes. Yet Justice Rothstein’s own arguments are even less persuasive than the majority’s. This is, on the whole, a very unsatisfying case.

Permanent Campaign or Permanent Censorship?

Richard Pildes has an interesting post over at the Election Law Blog, discussing Michael Ignatieff’s take on the “circumvention” of election campaign spending limits by the Conservative Party of Canada in their “permanent campaign” which, Prof. Ignatieff believes (and, in fairness to him, so do many others), destroyed him as a potential Prime Minister. The “permanent campaign” ― that is, political parties spending on advertising outside of the immediate pre-election periods, in which such spending is tightly regulated by the Canada Elections Act ― is a new phenomenon in Canada. (Not quite as new as prof. Pildes suggests; it started in 2007, when it was directed against Prof. Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion.) Prof. Pildes comments:

Why didn’t parties spend like this in the pre-election period before … ? … No reason, except that it just wasn’t done. Yet once political actors, including parties, believe this approach will work and have the funds to implement it, they naturally escape campaign spending limits by shifting spending to the pre-election period.

This, says prof. Pildes, is a problem not just for Canada, but for any other jurisdiction which limits political spending during the pre-election period, but not outside of it. (Prof. Pildes ties these limits to public financing of political parties, but that’s not a necessary connection, and indeed it has now been severed in Canada. Public financing for federal political parties has been abolished, but the restrictions on campaign spending, and hence the incentives to spend outside the regulated campaign period, remain in place.)

Prof. Ignatieff now favours “ban[ning] party advertising outside of election times,” but prof. Pildes notes that

once regulation moves outside of something clearly defined as a discrete “election period,” the issues become much murkier:  does Ignatieff advocate banning all party spending in support or against candidates at all times?  Or does he envision such a ban starting only a certain number of years after the most recent election, say 2-3 years, in anticipation of the next general election?

Expanding the restrictions on political spending and speech applicable during the election period would indeed be problematic. As I write in a paper on the regulation of political spending by “third parties” ― that is, anyone who is not a political party or a candidate for office ― which should appear sometime in the next few months in the McGill Law Journal,

the free discussion so essential to the existence of democracy and of parliamentary institutions is in Canada 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 at the core of the protection of the freedom of expression.

Are we prepared to accept the expansion of these constraints? And if we are, which constraints should we expand? Only those applicable to political parties, which professors Ignatieff and Pildes discuss, or should we also extend the limits applicable to “third parties,” whose political spending during election campaigns is now limited to an almost derisory amount which, as the dissenting judges in Harper v. Canada (Attorney-General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827 pointed out, that doesn’t allow them to use traditional media to communicate with national audiences?

British Columbia has, in fact, attempted to expand its restriction on “third party” spending to “pre-campaign periods,” first of 60 days and then of anywhere between 0 and 40 days, only for both attempts to be declared unconstitutional by its Court of Appeal, in  British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 and Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394. As I wrote here in commenting on the latter decision, I’m afraid that it “is a somewhat wilful, or at least wishful, interpretation of Harper.” The rationale of the Harper majority, which upheld severe restrictions on third party advertising during election campaigns, might be stretched to apply to pre-campaign periods.

But it’s not a sure thing that the Supreme Court would so stretch it. (As best I can tell, BC didn’t appeal the decisions striking down its pre-campaign rules to the Supreme Court, so we had no occasion to find out.) At some point at least, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify silencing, or even muffling, political debate. We might find it acceptable for the 35-day period of an election campaign. But longer, and especially permanent, restrictions come with very high costs for our freedom of expression. The “permanent campaign” might be a detestable innovation, but permanent censorship would be even worse.