Director of Fundamental Freedoms Program
Can an elected representative block a critical constituent on Twitter? What about suing another representative for defamation? How much control do politicians have over their online reputation and how much should they?
With a federal election on the horizon, voters will no doubt be relying on a great deal of online content and social media chatter to help them make decisions about candidates. In the buildup to October 2019, those who hope to get elected will be especially careful about their online presence. Candidates will not only ensure that they don’t post anything that could lose them votes but also take care that others aren’t posting items that may damage their chances. Online reputation management is big business – not just for those selling products and services. Reputation is a currency in the political sphere. There is a special incentive for politicians to make sure that the online record casts them in the best possible light, even if that means silencing critical or otherwise inconvenient voices.
If you are not already an elected representative, there is likely to be less online content about you, and you may even have a chance to delete some of those embarrassing tweets or Instagram posts before anyone thinks to take a screenshot for posterity. However, in my view, elected officials have special constitutional duties and responsibilities to their constituents – and this means that they may need to have thicker skin when it comes to online criticism. The question for those already in the public eye is: when does standing up for yourself start to look like heavy-handed silencing of your critics?
Recently, CCLA learned of a woman who has been blocked by her federal Member of Parliament on Twitter. MP John Brassard (Barrie-Innisfil, Ontario) has decided that the critiques that this constituent has voiced about him on Twitter merit retaliation. She no longer has the privilege of getting notifications about his tweets or regular updates about what he is doing in Parliament on behalf of his community. When she asked his staff why she was blocked, one response was that she was “a woman with very strong opinions”. They also told her that she “threatened to harass” the MP – this in response to her promise to be at campaign events and try to correct any misinformation she felt he was spreading about climate change. That is not harassment; that is political engagement, and candidates should welcome the opportunity to engage with an informed citizenry. These responses suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of how the political process works.
Brassard has also recently launched a $100,000 defamation suit and lodged a complaint with Barrie’s Integrity Commissioner regarding a Facebook post made by local Barrie city councillor Keenan Aylwin. Posted just days after the Christchurch massacres, Aylwin criticized Brassard and another Barrie-area MP, Alex Nuttall, for failing to speak out on what Aylwin characterized as Andrew Scheer’s “appearance on the same stage as a neo-Nazi sympathizer, Faith Goldy, at a United We Roll Rally.” Aylwin argues that the MPs are “playing footsies with white supremacists”. Brassard says the statement is false and defamatory, and that it violated the Code of Conduct for Barrie councillors. The Integrity Commissioner appears to agree with Brassard and Aylwin may face consequences from the council when they bring the matter before them.
In my view, these actions show a failure to appreciate the importance of free expression in Canada, particularly when it comes to political speech. I don’t believe that anyone – elected or not – has to subject themselves to repeated harassment in the real world or online. However, that is not what is happening in either of these two instances. An elected representative is going to face criticism, harsh, excessive, or worse: reasonable and eloquent. If the narrative is misleading or just plain wrong, an elected representative has avenues to correct the record. As we get closer to October 2019, Canadians should expect candidates to contribute to our political debate, not to stifle it. Silencing critics is not the answer.
In the United States, courts have already ruled that a public official who blocks a constituent from their Twitter feed has violated the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. I think a Canadian court might well find a Charter violation in similar circumstances since these online spaces have become our new public squares. If these social media tools are used to connect representatives with their constituents, they have to take the good with the bad. Blocking a constituent and suing the city councillor sends a clear message to those who wish to engage with Brassard on matters of policy: tread lightly.
This kind of chill is terrible for our democracy.