Free speech advocate smells the wolf of censorship in City of Nanaimo letter

Lawyers cites Charter of Rights after social media sites asked to refrain from what the city considers online personal attacks on its staff

A lawyer has sent letters on behalf of the City of Nanaimo to three social media sites that provide a forum for the discussion of local politics.

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.

The websites Nanaimo Political Talk, Gord Fuller Municipally (A)Musing, and A Better Nanaimo Facebook pages received the letter.

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

 

Just Posted

Vancouver Island homeowners buy more earthquake insurance than the rest of B.C.

Insurance Bureau of Canada says that’s because the perception of risk is greater on the Island

District of Oak Bay issues notice to cease tent city

The notice is effective immediately

‘Leaning tower’ rental building proposed for downtown Victoria

The building would offer 93 residential units targeted at young professionals

Anxiety amongst voters on amalgamation referendum

Non-binding referendum asks Victoria and Saanich residents to endorse citizens’ assembly

Lisa Helps campaigners target downtown Victoria bikes for election ads

Flyers were hung off of parked bikes in the downtown area

B.C. NDP retreats again on empty-home tax for urban areas

Rate reduced for all Canadians, dissident mayors to get annual meeting

Find your future at Black Press career fair in Victoria

More than 70 booths expected at Bay Street Armoury on Oct. 25

Jets score 3 late goals to beat Canucks 4-1

Winnipeg ends three-game Vancouver win streak

POLL: Do you support amalgamation for communities in the Capital Region?

Residents in Victoria and Saanich will be voting on Oct. 20 on… Continue reading

San Group announces plans to build new sawmill in Port Alberni

San Group has purchased 25 acres of Catalyst Paper land for expansion

Two B.C. cannabis dispensaries raided on legalization day

Port Alberni dispensaries ticketed for “unlawful sale” of cannabis

Canada not sending anyone to Saudi business summit

Sources insist Ottawa never intended to dispatch a delegation this time around

VPD ordered to co-operate with B.C. police watchdog probe

According to the IIO, a court is ordering Vancouver police to co-operate with an investigation into a fatal shooting

Earthquake early-warning sensors installed off coast of B.C.

The first-of-its kind warning sensors are developed by Ocean Networks Canada

Most Read