In Defence of Civil Disobedience: Part Two

In my previous posting, I outlined the historical significance of civil disobedience, tracing the creation of the phrase from Thoreau, who turned an innocuous poll tax into a deeply personal articulation of one’s beliefs, to the present iteration of collective disobedience against government policy. Today’s posting will take these concepts a step further into the legal realm.

The definition of “civil disobedience’ as found in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, suggests the act is a “non-violent” form of group protest. This definition conjures up a vision of peaceful sign-bearing protesters, shouting slogans, and holding hands in solidarity before dispersing for a musical interlude and barbecue. This peaceful concept of civil disobedience no longer seems to fit the bill as today’s more complicated issues require a much higher shock quotient to get the attention of the media and then ultimately the government. Hand in hand with this more virulent form of disobedience is the more intransigent reaction by the government: as crowds shout “hell no, we wont go,” the government lawyers are busily drafting court applications for injunctive relief.

Injunctions, as I thoroughly discussed in my previous posting on the Occupy Movement, are a favoured response by the government as, if successful, results in a court imposed order for the disobedience to stop and then turns the protest into legally recognized unlawful conduct. This can have enormous repercussions as an injunction can not only effectively shut down any future protests, but can also provide legal precedent on the ultimate issue at stake: the fundamental freedoms protected under s. 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms involving s.2 (b) freedom of expression rights, s. 2(c) freedom of peaceful assembly, and s. 2(d) freedom of association. As discussed in previous postings, the Charter is not absolute and the Courts try to balance societal rights with the individual freedoms found under section 2. As a result, although the Courts may find a violation of s. 2 rights by the government seeking an injunction, where societal harm or violence is caused, the Courts tend to find such injunctions a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society under s.1.

The government may also respond to civil disobedience through the criminal justice system. Typically, such response is reserved for the clearest examples of law breaking such as the destructive effects of a rioting crowd. In those cases, the law is most severe, imposing harsh sentences on those who destroy property and harm others under the flimsy disguise of a "cause".

Criminal contempt charges may also be laid when injunctions are not obeyed. This scenario is subtler as it does not involve harmful action but involves inaction: a failure to obey a law, which has been declared valid by the courts. The justice system deals with this form of disobedience slightly differently. Here again Charter violations may not provide a valid defence, but may be taken into account as a mitigating factor on sentence.

To raise a valid defence on a criminal charge arising out of civil disobedience is a challenge as any moral or ethical arguments for committing the prohibited acts do not change the essence of the crime committed. The best way to explain this is through the Robin Hood scenario. Robin Hood and his Merry Men stole from the rich to give to the poor. When we hear this story we usually give Robin the “thumbs up” for fighting against tyranny and greed. We also cheer as he takes the gold from evil King John, knowing that the good King Richard will absolve Robin of any guilt. But, in terms of criminal law, a bandit is a bandit no matter how you slice it. Although Robin Hood may have a valid moral argument for his actions and therefore an excellent motive for breaking the law, the law is clear: the guilt act and the guilty mind are present and therefore Robin Hood is guilty of highway robbery. He may receive a suspended sentence from a sympathetic court but he is still a convicted felon.

There is, however, a possible defence available. In Perka v. the Queen, the Supreme Court of Canada, when considering the common law defence of necessity, suggested such a defence may be a valid defence to acts of civil disobedience. In the necessity defence both the prohibited act or actus reus and the fault requirement or mens rea is complete. Therefore, all essential elements of the crime have been fulfilled and the defence merely excuses the blameworthy conduct.

Essentially, the accused acknowledges the wrongfulness of the action but in the circumstances the accused should not be punished for the crime. Excuses are typically limited to emergency situations wherein the accused had no choice but to break the law. As our criminal law punishes only those who choose to act criminally, an excuse can exonerate an accused of a crime. In the necessity scenario, the accused must choose between two evils.

However, such exoneration comes with a price: the defence of necessity is only accepted in certain, very limited circumstances. There are three elements to the necessity defence. Firstly, the accused must be facing imminent peril or danger. Secondly, there must be no reasonable legal alternative but for the accused to break the law. Thirdly, the harm inflicted by committing the crime must be proportional to the harm, which would have been caused if the accused followed the law and not committed the crime. As a result, necessity is rarely advanced and even rarely accepted as a valid defence. When it is accepted, the Court views the behaviour as a form of moral involuntariness.

How does the necessity defence work in practice where there are acts of civil disobedience? The best case examples are not from usually staid Canada, but in the protest fuelled United States. In the 1969 case of United States v. Moylan, the appellants were charged with the destruction of government records, records they seized from a government office and burned with napalm in protest of the Vietnam War. Counsel for the defence, the “radical lawyer” and activist William Kunstler, argued that the jury should have been instructed that they “had the power to acquit even if appellants were clearly guilty of the charged offenses.” This “right’ was based in moral arguments as the appellants were protesting a war “outrageous to their individual standards of humanity.” Furthermore, the war itself was illegal and therefore citizens had an obligation, in the name of justice, to break the law in order to enforce the law.

The United States Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit Judge Sobeloff, took a page from the Robin Hood myth and found no matter how sincere the appellants were in their actions, and no matter how strong their moral arguments were, they still committed crimes for which they must be accountable. In upholding the law Justice Sobeloff remarked:

To encourage individuals to make their own determinations as to which laws they will obey and which they will permit themselves as a matter of conscience to disobey is to invite chaos. No legal system could long survive if it gave every individual the option of disregarding with impunity any law, which by his personal standard was judged morally untenable. Toleration of such conduct would not be democratic, as appellants claim, but inevitably anarchic.

The best known case of a jury being invited by defence to eschew the law and decide a case on their own moral conscious, was in R. v. Morgentaler, when Morris Manning, Q.C. invited the jury to acquit Dr. Morgentaler of violating the "bad" abortion law. The Supreme Court of Canada chastised Manning for his emotional appeal, finding that such an invitation would “undermine and place at risk” the jury system. In support of this position, Chief Justice Dickson referred to the British 1784 criminal libel case of R. v. Shipley and quoted Lord Mansfield as follows:

So the jury who usurp the judicature of law, though they happen to be right, are themselves wrong, because they are right by chance only, and have not taken the constitutional way of deciding the question. It is the duty of the Judge, in all cases of general justice, to tell the jury how to do right, though they have it in their power to do wrong, which is a matter entirely between God and their own consciences.

To be free is to live under a government by law . . . . Miserable is the condition of individuals, dangerous is the condition of the State, if there is no certain law, or, which is the same thing, no certain administration of law, to protect individuals, or to guard the State.  ...

In opposition to this, what is contended for? -- That the law shall be, in every particular cause, what any twelve men, who shall happen to be the jury, shall be inclined to think; liable to no review, and subject to no control, under all the prejudices of the popular cry of the day, and under all the bias of interest in this town, where thousands, more or less, are concerned in the publication of newspapers, paragraphs, and pamphlets. Under such an administration of law, no man could tell, no counsel could advise, whether a paper was or was not punishable.

Certainly, it is valid to be fearful of a capricious jury who are guided by their own prejudices and sensibilities but there is an attraction to the ability of a jury to “do the right thing” and acquit in circumstances where the law is unjust, not just unfavourable, but unjust. When I was a student at Osgoode Law School in 1983, Morris Manning came to the school and reenacted his Morgnetaler jury address, an address which did result in an acquittal for the doctor. It was a moving piece of advocacy, which did stir the moral conscious. In the end, I was questioning the moral and legal basis for a law, which could send Dr. Morgentaler to jail. Ultimately the court system did work for Dr. Morgentaler, due to our Charter, the best defence against tyranny and injustice.

What does all of this mean for the ongoing student protests in Quebec? It is unclear where the Quebec government will go. Certainly the new laws they have introduced to stop further protest has only fueled more acts of civil disobedience. As with the occupy movement, these acts have gone viral and the issue has become one of students’ rights and the moral obligation to speak out against seemingly “bad” laws. However, to speak out against laws is much different than acting out criminally. It will ultimately be up to the Courts to draw the line between the two.

 

 

Let’s Talk About: Property Rights & The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Alberta election is heating up and is soon to be decided as Albertans go to the polls on Monday, April 23, 2012. One of the many controversial issues raised by the Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith, is on property rights and the absence of such rights guaranteed in the Charter. Smith, on her Wildrose website, suggests the “fundamental role” of government is the “protection and preservation of property rights.” As part of her platform on this “fundamental” issue is the promise her government would “entrench property rights.” She would do this by implementing an Alberta Property Rights Preservation Act, entrenching “basic property rights in the Alberta Bill of Rights” and spearheading “a national initiative to add property rights to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” 

Really? Are we really to believe that this “pressing” issue of property rights should be shoulder to shoulder in our Charter along with our fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of conscious, and equality rights. Should our preoccupation with individual, political, and democratic rights take a back seat to issues of ownership and possession? What will this mean for our criminal law and the ability of the government to reasonably search and seize property for a criminal investigation? Does the corporeal trump the spirit? Is property, which not everyone has the ability to own, require the special attention and protection of our most Supreme laws? Why should property rights, which were specifically and deliberately left out of the Charter, now be placed back in?

Not that we would ever see the unanimous agreement to do so that is required before the Charter could be amended. Do we need the kind of property rights litigation, which occurs in the United States, where property rights were specifically enshrined in their Constitution and viewed as sacred as life itself? And if we feel we do want this protection, are we prepared for the result. For a good discussion on the history of American Constitution property rights, read the SCC decision in Reference re ss. 193 and 195.1(1)(C) of the criminal code (Man.).

Danielle Smith may have taken a page from her namesake, Adam Smith’s, Wealth of Nations, with a call to protect life, liberty and property but fails to recognize the positive obligation protecting property would place on the government. Thus, we would need a robust and interventionist government, willing to step into the property rights fray. Entrenching property rights would mean not less government but more government, as the Courts would be busy reviewing the government’s ability to regulate and protect the national interest in the name of the economy. Take for instance the issue of natural resources and the role ownership of such resources would play under a property Charter rights scenario.

Canada does in fact have some experience with protection of property rights as section 1(a) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, 1960, the statutory, quasi-constitutional precursor to the Charter, protects “the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law.” While this still enacted statute can still be used to “protect” property rights, the legal interpretation of this right has not provided the protection the Wildrose maintains they can provide if elected. 

But would such entrenchment of property rights really “protect and preserve” an individual’s right to their property as touted by the Wildrose? It is instructive perhaps to look at the case law on property rights in the Bill of Rights. This passage of the Bill of Rights was considered by the Supreme Court of Canada rather recently in the 2003 Authorson case, in which disabled veterans attempted to require the federal government to pay past interest on pension funds despite legislation minimizing Crown liability. The end result of the decision, dismissing the veterans’ claim, was to uphold Parliament’s right to expropriate property without compensation.

Legally, an “entrenchment” of property rights does not in and of itself suggest an individual’s right to property would be absolutely guaranteed. Indeed, considering all of our rights under the Charter are not absolutely protected, any “new” Charter rights would be treated similarly. According to s. 1, all of the Charter rights are subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.  In addition, both Parliament and each provincial legislature, including Alberta, have the authority to enact legislation contrary to the rights guaranteed in the Charter through the Charter notwithstanding provision contained in s. 33.

Therefore, the Wildrose is promising, in a very heated election, something they cannot themselves guarantee. Undoubtedly these are the best promises to make: no one can take them to task for merely promising to try. Interestingly, the Authorson case was written by the then Alberta appointment to the SCC, Justice Major, who is now trying to sort out the MLA compensation debacle. Of course, the proponents of property rights would suggest it is the poor wording of the Bill of Rights, offering property protection in accordance with due process, which is the problem and which can be easily fixed.

But even if the Charter was amended and property rights were absolutely protected as desired by the Wildrose, the question still remains whether or not protecting property rights is in the best interests of Canadians. If we say “yes” to property rights, then we must be prepared for all kinds of litigation overrunning our justice system such as: litigation on the right of the government to tax individuals; litigation on the government’s right to make decisions on natural resources; litigation on intellectual property rights including copyright and access to information; and litigation regarding criminal law and search warrants as discussed in the SCC case of Quebec (Attorney General) v. Laroche. We could even see spill-over litigation in the area of economic rights, which traditionally has been unprotected by the Charter as discussed in the SCC Gosselin case, which could put Canada’s economic health at risk by promoting the financial sovereignty of the individual at the expense of a strong economy and healthy society.

Thus, in the end, we must decide if property rights are worth protecting in our country knowing the possible legal pitfalls, which may ensue. Let’s ensure the next thirty years of Charter litigation promotes our fundamental freedoms as individuals of choice and free will, entitled to respect and dignity, instead of a document weighed down by possessory rights and self-interest.

Wristbands Are In Effect: The "Keep A Breast" Campaign

My daughter is an engaged and informed teen. She reads the news and we discuss controversial issues as a family. She speaks out against injustice and lends her support to marginalized groups. Recently, she showed her support when she and a group of friends attended the gay pride parade. It was a positive experience from which she learned that tolerance and diversity are essential values to a healthy and vibrant community. In short, she is a good citizen.

The other day, after a trip to the nearby shopping mall, she came home flushed with excitement. She had "purchased," using her own money, three silicone "message" wristbands in support of breast cancer. As she proudly displayed the colourful wristbands, she read them out: "I Love Boobies," two of them said; "Check Yourself (Keep A Breast), the other said. To me this was clever messaging in a teen-friendly package. As they "say" Facebook, I "like" it and give it a "thumbs up."

Photo on 2011-10-17 at 18.32.jpg

On the weekend, I read, in the newspaper, about parents in British Columbia who don't like it. They find the wristbands offensive and distracting. So much so, the local school banned them. I did what any instructor of human rights would do, I cut out the article for my class.

Today in class, we discussed our fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Charter, specifically the right under s.2(b) as:

the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication

The discussion ran through many controversial examples of expression such as public nudity, burlesque dancing, t-shirts depicting violence against women, and even irreligious album covers. The discussion around these issues was often heated and divisive, but then we discussed the wristbands. In this discussion, everyone was in accord with each other: the wristbands are not offensive as they express an important public health message. The message was a cause to support, not to banish.

In a similar case, the United States District Court agreed. According to Madame Justice Mclaughlin, the school imposed ban of the wristbands was found to be an unconstitutional violation of the students' First Amendment rights.

What would happen here in Canada? Considering the Supreme Court of Canada's broad and expansive reading of freedom of expression, there is no doubt the wristbands would be protected expression. Whether or not the code of conduct limiting this expression, would survive s.1 reasonable limit scrutiny requires a more nuanced analysis. I am inclined to believe this prohibiton would not survive Charter scrutiny. A school code with such broadly based prohibitions would not minimally impair a student's right to express themselves. 

In the end, the choice is a personal one. To me, however, the choice is clear: I Love Boobies!

Update

on 2011-10-19 17:02 by Lisa A. Silver

Consider this: The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council okays Buchcherry's song entitled Crazy Bitch as it is "not abusive" but "I Love (heart symbol) Boobies" breast cancer wristbands are banned and branded offensive. Go figure?