David Sutherland knows what he’d do if he received a chilling legal letter like the one three social media website hosts received on behalf of the City of Nanaimo last month.
He’d be mailing them a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and pointedly asking what part of it supports a government seeking to restrict political speech.
Saying several personal attacks had been made about the competency and character of identifiable city staff, lawyer Adrienne Atherton asked website moderators to delete such posts and take steps to ensure they do not appear in the future.
The letter cited a desire to protect staff from workplace harassment and bullying, pointing out that is also required of employers under WorksafeBC regulations.
But Sutherland, a prominent Vancouver-based free speech and media lawyer, suggested the letter might be better described as an attempt to dress up the wolf of censorship in the sheep’s clothing of protecting employees. He said the Charter right to freedom of expression clearly supersedes any WorksafeBC policy, adding the government cannot be taking steps to stop people from criticizing it, no matter what WorksafeBC regulations might say.
“Civil servants are not immune from criticism. In many cases, calling them out by name may be the only way to inhibit misbehaviour,” he said.
“This terrible scourge of criticism of civil servants warrants the muzzling of citizens? We can’t have it and we can’t dress it up, this wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
When asked to provide specific examples of the attacks in question, Nanaimo director of human resources John Van Horne was unable to do so. He described the action as a response to an issue that is out there and has been for some time.
“It’s not any particular one,” he said.
WorksafeBC said it had no opinion on the letter itself, but confirmed it accurately describes Nanaimo’s responsibilities under WorksafeBC policy. Worksafe representatives were unaware of any complaints of this nature from Nanaimo or elsewhere, but said the employer is in the best position to determine whether action is necessary.
Nine Vancouver Island local government jurisdictions contacted by Black Press said they have not had an issue with social media commenting and have not considered action like Nanaimo’s. A tenth, Campbell River, said it has had problems, but is not considering action.
“Yes, this has been an unfortunate issue for both staff and elected officials and is of concern to us,” Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams said. “While it may be a 'freedom of speech' issue, nobody deserves to be subjected to some to malicious and defamatory comments that are becoming far too common, especially when it impacts people's family members, particularly children.”
North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure said people who step over the line eventually get exposed for who they are.
“It is my belief (or is it hope) that those who abuse social media inevitably discredit themselves and have no influence beyond their small circle of disciples,” he said.
Don Bonner of A Better Nanaimo said it did have a “bit of a chilling effect.”
— with files from Tamara Cunningham
Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP