Freedom of Expression

Breaking down the “Digital Charter” – Part 1

Cara Zwibel
Director of Fundamental Freedoms Program





In the wake of the live streaming of the massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, Canada has joined many other nations in answering the “Christchurch call” and vowing to eliminate violent extremist and terrorist content online. But what does the proposed “Digital Charter” mean for people in Canada and our civil liberties? At the moment, the Charter appears to be entirely aspirational: we have a list of principles the government has announced but have no sense of whether, how or when those principles will be embedded in law, policy or practice.

Of the 10 Charter principles, at least one – if implemented into an enforceable law – will have a direct and significant impact on the content that Canadians can create, disseminate and access online. In other words, a very real impact on our freedom of expression which, it’s worth remembering, is protected in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is a real – not aspirational – Charter with the full force of the Constitution, Canada’s supreme law. The government has said, “Canadians can expect that digital platforms will not foster or disseminate hate, violent extremism or criminal content.” On its own, a principle which sets out an “expectation” for what privately owned platforms will do has little weight, but one of the other principles promises “clear and meaningful penalties” for violations of law and regulations to support the principles.

This principle has me worried. How do we deal with hate and extremism without capturing the merely unpopular or offensive? Don’t get me wrong: I don’t spend time on neo-Nazi sites or seek out graphic acts of violence on video streaming platforms. I don’t like this kind of content and actively avoid it. But I worry about broad rules which “outlaw” some types of content and what this means for a democracy where free expression is supposed to be a fundamental freedom. Regulating expression is notoriously tricky. The sheer volume of content online and the Internet’s fundamentally global character only add to the challenges.

I need to know more about the kind of “violent extremism” from which Canadians can expect to be shielded. It is appalling that the massacre in Christchurch was live streamed using a social media platform, but is there a way to address that problem without also censoring other content which might have significant social value? Think of repressed minorities who suffer violence at the hands of the state. Live streaming those acts of violence might bring the world’s attention to an important issue. Consider also the impact of live streaming videos which have captured horrific acts of police brutality. Video can be an important means of holding the powerful to account. Does the government get to decide who can stream content live? Does Facebook? Should we let an algorithm determine who can be trusted to stream?

What does the government mean when it talks about “fostering or disseminating hate”. The legal definition of “hate speech” is quite narrow, and for good reason. But when most people use the term, it’s not that narrow definition they have in mind, or expect to be enforced. Our Criminal Code prohibition on hate speech (s. 319) has been held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court because it is supposed to only capture the most extreme kind of content. Even so, the legal definition is open to varying interpretations, and courts and judges frequently disagree about whether a given piece of content crosses the line. When does harsh criticism of Israel become anti-Semitism? When do strong statements of religious beliefs about the “proper” definition of marriage become hate propaganda targeting the LGBTQ community? Is the Digital Charter going to place these decisions in the hands of private platforms? If so, will those platforms be punished if, in the eyes of the government, they make the wrong call? If the answer is yes, they will certainly err on the side of censorship rather than free expression. And if dissemination is relatively clear, what does it mean to “foster” hate? Will platforms be expected to interfere in how online networks form to ensure like-minded bigots can’t find each other? If the goal of social media is to help connect people, are we now saying that some people really do need to be isolated? Our constitutionally protected freedom to associate is protected by the same Constitution which safeguards freedom of expression.

Finally, is the principle’s reference to “criminal content” a separate category, or are hate and violent extremism sub-categories of this broader theme? Are platforms responsible for deciding if content is criminal or will they only be expected to remove something which has already been the subject of a criminal conviction? State censorship is dangerous because we never know when our views, opinions or content may be deemed too offensive or harmful (or simply on the wrong end of the political spectrum) for public dissemination. Outsourcing censorship to a corporate entity accountable only to its shareholders is at least as dangerous.

With an election coming up in a few short months, the aspirational Digital Charter may make for talking points with little substance. Nevertheless, it is good to put this issue on the agenda. It is worth having a serious think about how to reconcile a strong commitment to free expression with a commitment or desire to deal with extremism online. And, when we pick our next elected representative, we should at least understand how they feel about free expression, and what they intend to do to protect and promote this right in the digital public square.

Freedom of Expression

Letter to Quebec Minister of Justice Regarding Child Pornography…

The Honourable Sonia Lebel
Ministère de la Justice
Édifice Louis-Philippe-Pigeon
1200, route de l’Église
9e étage
Québec (Quebec) G1V 4M1
April 12, 2019

Dear Minister,

I am writing on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) regarding your decision to prosecute author Yvan Godbout and editor Nycolas Doucet for production and distribution of child pornography.   This is a terrible exercise of your quasi-judicial powers.  There are self-evident constitutional bars to such censorship by Criminal Code, and this matter clearly does not meet the second branch of prosecutorial discretion:  it is not in the public interest.

The CCLA is a national, non-profit, public interest advocacy organization that has been at the forefront of promoting and protecting freedom of expression since our founding in 1964. CCLA made submissions when Parliament first introduced criminal offences relating to child pornography and has been involved in every significant Supreme Court of Canada case that interprets the child pornography provisions. We recognize the pressing need to protect children from exploitation and abuse. However, we have sought to ensure that criminal laws are not used to stifle expression, including artistic expression. This prosecution does just that.

It is our understanding that the prosecution of the author and publisher in this case stems from the description, on one page of a 270-page horror novel, of the sexual assault of a young child. Now that charges have been laid, you have managed no doubt to increase the books’ readership exponentially, even though your charge suggests those in possession of it have child pornography – and are liable under the criminal law – in the eyes of your office.

While the Criminal Code definition of “child pornography” does include written descriptions whose creation does not involve harming children, the provisions must be construed narrowly, as noted by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Sharpe, 2001 SCC 2. The material must either “advocate or counsel sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years” that would be an offence, or have as its “dominant characteristic” the description “for a sexual purpose, of sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years” that would be an offence. Provided our description above is accurate, it seems clear that the material is not intended to advocate for the sexual abuse of children. Moreover, the Court has held that the phrase “for a sexual purpose” should be understood to consider whether, reasonably perceived, the material is intended to cause sexual stimulation to some viewers. Our understanding is that this is a novel written in the horror genre, and that the relevant passage is only one page in close to three hundred. Given this context, it is straining the limits of reasonableness to suggest that the novel is “child pornography” as contemplated under the Code.

We also note that there are defences to the child pornography provisions which the Supreme Court has held must be liberally construed. In particular, the Code includes an artistic merit defence which the Supreme Court has confirmed should be interpreted broadly: “Any objectively established artistic value, however small, suffices to support the defence. Simply put, artists, so long as they are producing art, should not fear prosecution under s. 163.1(4).” (Sharpe, para 63)

This criminal prosecution is wrong-headed and we urge you to re-evaluate and revisit the decision in light of the foregoing, and otherwise withdraw the information.  While sexual violence and exploitation of children is a wrong, so is government censorship.  Artists always have and always will explore these subjects in their works. Prosecuting an author and editor for depicting such violence in a novel is contrary to the public interest, and sends a chill through literary and artistic communities. We petition you to reverse your decision and stop censoring literature through the Criminal Code.


Cara Faith Zwibel, LL.B., LL.M.
Director, Fundamental Freedoms Program

Letter to Quebec Min Justice – Child Pornography Prosecution

Madame l’honorable Sonia Lebel
Ministère de la Justice du Québec
Édifice Louis-Philippe-Pigeon
1200, route de l’Église
9e étage
Québec (Quebec) G1V 4M1


12 avril, 2019

Madame la ministre,

Je vous écris à la part de l’Association Canadienne des Libertés Civiles (ACLC) au sujet de votre décision d’instituer une procédure à l’encontre de l’auteur Yvan Godbout et de l’éditeur Nycolas Doucet, pour production et distribution de pornographie juvénile. Ceci est un exercice absolument horrible de vos pouvoirs quasi-juridiques. Il existe des interdictions constitutionnelles évidentes à l’encontre de cette censure dans le Code criminel et ceci ne tombe pas bien évidemment sous l’emprise de la  discrétion d’un procureur d’intérêt secondaire: il n’y a aucun intérêt public à ce faire.

Notre association, la ACLC, est un organisme national à but non-lucratif et d’intérêt public, qui a toujours mené à bien la promotion et la protection de la libre-expression, et ce depuis notre fondation en 1964. La ACLC a déposé maintes soumissions lors de l’introduction au parlement de lois relatant aux offenses criminelles sur la pornographie juvénile. Outre, nous nous sommes impliqués dans toutes affaires importantes de la cour suprême du Canada relatant aux provisions sur la pornographie et sur les abus d’enfants. Toutefois, nous avons toujours  cherché à assurer que les lois criminelles ne soient jamais utilisées à des fins d’étouffement de l’expression, y-compris de l’expression artistique. Votre poursuite ne semble viser qu’à cela.

Selon nous, toute poursuite judiciaire à l’encontre de l’auteur et de l’éditeur ci-concernés dépend à l’évidence même de la description d’une agression sexuelle sur un enfant de bas âge, figurant sur une page unique sur 270 d’un roman d’horreur. Depuis que ces accusations ont été portées, il semblerait donc que vous ayez promulgué malgré vous la lecture et l’achat de ce livre, même si vos accusations essaient d’impliquer une responsabilité criminelle quelconque de la part des usagers du livre aux yeux de votre office.

Bien que la définition de la “pornographie juvénile”, selon le Code criminel, n’inclue pas les descriptions qui ne nuisent pas à un enfant de part leur création, ces provisions doivent être interprétées de manière stricte, ainsi que décrété par la Cour suprême du Canada, dans R. c. Sharpe, 2001 SCC 2. Le matériel doit donc préconiser ou conseiller  une activité sexuelle spécifique avec une personne de moins de dix-huit ans, telle activité constituant une offense, ou qui aurait pour “caractéristique dominante, dans un but sexuel” une activité sexuelle avec une personne  âgée de moins de  dix-huit ans et qui constituerait donc une offense. Étant donné la précision ci-dessus, il semblerait acquis que la lecture du livre ne promulgue en aucune sorte un abus sexuel quelconque d’un enfant.

En outre, la Cour a jugé que la phrase “dans un but sexuel” doit être interprété comme étant voulu intentionnellement stimuler sexuellement certains lecteurs. Selon nous, le roman en question est écrit dans le genre du roman d’horreur; le passage en question ne constitue qu’une seule page sur presque trois cent. Sur ce, il n’est certainement donc pas raisonnable de suggérer que l’intégralité de ce roman constitue en fait une “pornographie infantile” quelconque à l’encontre du Code criminel.

Nous notons donc qu’il existe des défenses incontroversibles contres toutes provisions de pornographie infantile interprétées par la Cour suprême. En particulier, le Code permet une défense de mérite artistique, interprétée assez vastement: “Toute valeur artistique objectivement établie, si minime soit-elle, suffit à fonder le moyen de défense. Tant qu’il produit de l’art, l’artiste ne devrait tout simplement pas craindre d’être poursuivi en vertu du par. 163.1(4).” (Sharpe, para 63)

Toute prosécution dans ce sens serait mal dirigée. Nous vous prions fortement de ré-évaluer votre décision dans cette nouvelle lumière et de vous désister. Bien que la violence sexuelle et que toute exploitation d’enfant soit bien évidemment  à tort, toute censure gouvernementale l’est bien sûr de même. Les artistes ont toujours exploré et exploreront toujours ces sujets de part leur oeuvre. Emmener en justice un auteur ou éditeur pour avoir illustré telle ou telle violence dans le contexte d’une oeuvre romancière est de fait contraire à l’intérêt public, et ce envoie un frisson de part la communauté littéraires et artistique. Nous vous demandons donc de revenir sur votre décision et d’arrêter de censurer la littérature par le biais du Code Criminel.


Bien sincèrement à vous,
Cara Faith Zwibel, LL.B., LL.M.
Directrice, programme des libertés fondamentales, ACLC

Lettre Ministre de Justice Quebec – Pornographie Juvenile

Court Cases

Victory For Free Speech in Supreme Court Decision: Groia

The Supreme Court today has released its decision in Groia v. Law Society of Upper Canada, a case that considers when a law society can discipline a lawyer for alleged “incivility” in the courtroom. The Court overturned the Law Society’s discipline decision, finding it unreasonable based on the particular circumstances and context of the case. All in all, this is a good result for freedom of speech and the rights of clients.

Groia was initially found guilty of professional misconduct because of statements he made about the conduct of the prosecutors in pursuing his client for violations of the Securities Act. The statements were made in court, before a judge, and in defence of his client’s constitutional rights to a fair trial. CCLA intervened in the case because of a concern that an overly broad reading of the civility requirement could have a chilling effect on lawyers and deter them from zealously advocating for their clients’ rights. We argued that the threshold for disciplining a lawyer for incivility based on in-court statements should be very high: only in the clearest of cases, where the alleged incivility seriously undermines the administration of justice or is likely to result in a miscarriage of justice. We also argued that any after-the-fact review by the legal regulator should give due regard to how the conduct was addressed (or not addressed) by the presiding judge at the time the statements were made.

While the majority of the Supreme Court did not adopt the high threshold that CCLA proposed, it recognized the central importance of allowing lawyers the freedom to express themselves, particularly in defence of their clients’ rights. It also noted that incivility prosecutions should target behaviour that has a negative impact on the administration of justice or the fairness of a particular proceeding.

Ultimately, the majority found that the approach adopted by the Law Society Appeal Panel engaged in a proportionate balancing of freedom of expression with the Law Society’s mandate and function, and held that due regard should be given to how a presiding judge deals with in-court statements by counsel that are later alleged to amount to incivility. Significantly, the majority also found that a lawyer’s mistake about the law (made in good faith and with a reasonable basis) could not form the basis of a finding of professional misconduct based on incivility. In short, it is not uncivil to be mistaken.

Although the ultimate result in this case is encouraging, the CCLA remains concerned that the approach adopted by the Court may not give sufficient guidance to lawyers about the boundaries of acceptable conduct, and ultimately affect how clients are represented. It will be important to monitor how legal regulators interpret the decision and what effect it has on counsel, particularly those engaged in criminal defence work.

Read the Supreme Court’s judgment here.

News and Analysis

G20 Civil Case against Toronto Police Board Begins Today

This week, trial begins in a long-awaited civil case against Toronto Polices Services for its use of mass searches during the G20 protests. The CCLA is intervening in the case, Luke Stewart v Toronto Police Services Board, to defend the right to protest free from unnecessary and unconstitutional police interference.

Luke Stewart’s civil claim specifically challenges the Toronto Police Service’s use of mass and indiscriminate searches of protesters entering Allan Gardens during the G20 protests. During the G20 summit, police officers subjected protesters to a search as a condition of entry to Allan Gardens park – with or without suspicion of wrongdoing.  After objecting to these searches and attempting to join the Allan Gardens protest, Luke Stewart was forcibly detained by police, searched, and had a pair of googles seized.

The CCLA will be arguing that it is an abuse of police power to seize personal property as a “condition of entry” to a public space and that legislation protecting against trespass must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Charter rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom from arbitrary detention and freedom from unreasonable search or seizure.  We are also arguing that damages for breaches of Charter rights may be an appropriate remedy in this case because an order of damages has the potential to influence conduct of police officers, hold police forces accountable for civil rights violations, and deter systemic violations of the Charter by policing organizations.

The case is being heard at Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice before Madam Justice Dietrich.

CCLA is being represented in this case by Alex Smith and Gabriel Edelson at Henein Hutchison LLP and Vitali Berditchevski at Torys LLP.

Read CCLA’s factum here

CCLA in the News:

VICE News: Toronto police are in court following largest arrests in Canadian history
Toronto Star: G20-related lawsuit on police brutality to begin Monday
CBC: Rare G20 protester civil suit went to trial because ‘settling wasn’t possible’