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.

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

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Sooke woman is speaking up after she was almost tricked by a lottery scam, claiming she had won $950,000 with Set for Life Lottery. (File Photo)
‘I wanted it to be true so badly’: Sooke woman almost falls for lottery scam

88-year-old received letter stating she had won $950,000

A female prisoner sent Langford police officers a thank-you card after she spent days in their custody. (Twitter/West Shore RCMP)
Woman gives Victoria-area jail 4.5-star review in handwritten card to police after arrest

‘We don’t often get thank you cards from people who stay with us, but this was sure nice to see’: RCMP

The Starbucks in Langford’s Westshore Town Centre is one of almost 300 storefronts that the U.S. coffee giant will be shutting across Canada by the end of March. (Google Maps)
Langford’s Westshore Town Centre Starbucks to close permanently

Popular coffee chain to close 300 storefronts across Canada by end of March

Royal Bay Secondary School (Black Press Media file photo)
Sooke School District alerts community to coronavirus positive case at Royal Bay secondary

Contact tracing underway after potential COVID-19 exposure Jan. 15

Staff and volunteers at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea were disappointed by the theft of an educational porpoise skull likely taken on Jan. 8. (Courtesy of Tina Kelly)
Well-loved porpoise skull stolen from Sidney aquarium

Skull had been used for youth and visitor education and outreach for years

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown

Daily cases decline over weekend, 31 more deaths

An elk got his antlers caught up in a zip line in Youbou over the weekend. (Conservation Officer Service Photo)
Elk rescued from zip line in Youbou on Vancouver Island

Officials urge people to manage items on their property that can hurt animals

A Trail man has a lucky tin for a keepsake after it saved him from a stabbing last week. File photo
Small tin in Kootenay man’s jacket pocket saved him from stabbing: RCMP

The man was uninjured thanks to a tin in his jacket

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Chantel Moore, 26, was fatally shot by a police officer during a wellness check in the early morning of June 4, 2020, in Edmundston, N.B. (Facebook)
Frustrated family denied access to B.C. Indigenous woman’s police shooting report

Independent investigation into B.C. woman’s fatal shooting in New Brunswick filed to Crown

Delta Police Constable Jason Martens and Dezi, a nine-year-old German Shepherd that recently retired after 10 years with Delta Police. (Photo submitted)
Dezi, a Delta police dog, retires on a high note after decade of service

Nine-year-old German Shepherd now fights over toys instead of chasing down bad guys

Nurses collect samples from a patient in a COVID suspect room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
5 British Columbians under 20 years old battled COVID-19 in ICU in recent weeks

Overall hospitalizations have fallen but young people battling the virus in hospital has increased

Canada released proposed regulations Jan. 2 for the fisheries minister to maintain Canada’s major fish stocks at sustainable levels and recover those at risk. (File photo)
New laws would cement DFO accountability to depleted fish stocks

Three B.C. salmon stocks first in line for priority attention under proposed regulations

Trees destroyed a Shoreacres home during a wind storm Jan. 13, 2021. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay woman flees just before tree crushes house

Pamala DeRosa is thankful to be alive

Most Read