Freedom of Expression: Poems, Posters, And Billboards As A Form of Complaint

In previous postings, I discussed the Occupy movement's "Tent Cities" as a form of political protest with expressive content and therefore protected expression under s.2 of the Charter. Once Charter protected, the analysis then shifts to the s.1 limitation analysis to determine whether or not a restriction of that expression is justified in a free and democratic society.

Political protest, as expression, is readily accepted as worthy of protection. The difficulty, however, is when we look to more obscure kinds of expressive protest, such as a personal complaint. This was the case in a recent decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Jeffers.

Mr. Jeffers was convicted of mischief and counselling murder as a result of distributing and plastering posters across Toronto, which referred to his dire financial situation caused by the bank's re-possession of his home. In one poster, the basis for his convictions, Jeffers reproduced a photograph of a city councillor with the councillor's name and the word "murder" as seen below:


Murder Help

Councillor Thompson Jeffers

Help Black 647-xxx-4476
We Black



Mr. Jeffers, who was not originally from Canada, had a grade 5 education. According to Mr. Jeffers, the posters were a cry for help and were not intended to harm the city councillor, who had helped Mr. Jeffers in the past. The councillor did not testify at trial.

In quashing the convictions and substituting acquittals, the Court of Appeal, applying the legal principles required to prove the offences, referred to postering as "an effective and inexpensive means of communicative expression" and therefore "criminalizing this kind of conduct is not in society's best interest." The posters, albeit crude and childish, were a public airing of an individual's frustration with a plea for help from the City and were, in light of all of the circumstances, not criminal.

The Jeffers case made reference to another earlier Ontario Court of Appeal case, R. v. Batista, wherein the accused wrote poems and posted the verses throughout a Mississauga neighbourhood. The poems were about the accused's city councillor, and as with Jeffers's posters, not the most erudite literature, but were found not criminal in nature. A sample of the impugned section of the poem is reproduced below:


Now this bad driver that

WE only know as Pat Saito

who run away from thataccident

site is going to think twice

before backing up and looking at

pot holes instead of doing

Her job



We are going to dig a pot hole

about six feet long and 3 feet wide

and five feet deep to hide

her body and God will take care

of Her Soul, but We can not

forgive her for doing nothing


She can keep running

at a good pace but

We will make sure

that She is in HEAVEN

and out of the Race.


In this case, the Court considered the elements of the offence of threaten death in the context of freedom of expression under s. 2 (b) of the Charter and the vital role political satire, albeit "amateurish, foolish, and offensive," plays in a democracy. Indeed, the Court found:

The poem’s purpose of denigrating the elected councillor’s level of job commitment or competence provides important context for a consideration of whether the impugned stanzas of the poem constitute a threat. All citizens are entitled to freedom of expression in the political forum, including those whose language skills are limited. While it was unnecessary for the trial judge to engage in the in-depth s. 2(b) analysis urged upon him by trial counsel, it was necessary to consider the poem as political commentary before determining whether it constituted a threat at law.

Of course, freedom of expression is no stranger to signage as a form of complaint and grievance. In the 2002 Supreme Court of Canada Guignard case, a billboard erected on Guignard's building showing dissatisfaction with an insurance company, was protected expression under the Charter and the municipal by-law restricting that right was found to be unconstitutional.

The sign, as a form of commercial expression, was also a form of "counter-advertising" wherein a consumer exercised his or her right to show dissatisfaction with a product with the additional benefit of forewarning other consumers. This expression of complaint or dissatisfaction, not unlike the complaints found in Jeffers and Batista, "is a form of expression of opinion that has an important effect on the social and economic life of a society."

The Jeffers and Batista cases are yet another example of the Courts using Charter values to interpret their findings. Thus, the Charter colours decisions with broad strokes without the rigidity of a direct Charter analysis. This subtle use of the Charter is the future of constitutional law as Charter values incrementally change our laws to make them more robust and relevant to society.

Part Two: Occupying Public Space

Yesterday, I outlined the tension between the City and the Occupy movement over the tent city erected in the City's public spaces. Although, municipal legislation prohibts the camp, it has, to this date, not been enforced. Why? Initially, no doubt, the thought was occupy Calgary would make their point and move on. No "strong arm of the law," means no trouble. Unfortunately, that tactic has proven to be wrong. The Occupy movement has no plans to move their campsite, even in the face of declining public support (petitions) and despite alternative offers of living space. It appears a Western style show-down is inevitable and the only question is how soon before the matter is before the Courts. 

What would happen if the matter did go before the Courts? Two cases, involving protest in two very different Canadian Cities, may help answer this question.

First we go to Ottawa. It is 1994 and a Peace Camp, to protest cruise missile testing, is erected on the lawn of the Parliament building. Indeed, the protesters had a presence, in one form or another, in front of Parliament since 1983. An attempt to dismantle the camp led to various court actions. At the heart of the debate was the expressive quality of the protest: if the Peace Camp attempted to convey or did convey a meaning, then, Weisfeld the leader of the protest, could argue an infringement of s. 2(b) of the Charter, freedom of expression.

The Federal Court of Appeal agreed with Weisfeld: the structure, and the presence of other accouterments of the protest (brochures, pamphlets, signs, and the like), indicated there was a meaning conveyed by the Peace Camp itself. However, as discussed yesterday, the decision does not rest on a violation. An infringement of a right still requires a further analysis based on s. 1 of the Charter. Is this violation justified in a free and democratic society? Enter, the government to establish that indeed, it is, or the legislation restricting the right is invalid. The end result in Ottawa was a save by the government. On the s.1 analysis the removal of Weisfeld was justified. Exit the Peace Camp.

Fast forward fifteen years to Vancouver where the Falun Gong erected banners and a "make-shift shelter" in front of the Chinese Consulate, contrary to a City By-law. The City sought an injunction to remove the protest, which was granted. The Falun Gong appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal.

Following Weisfeld, the Court agreed there was a violation of s.2(b) as the structures had expressive content being "part and parcel" of the Falun Gong protest. That is where the similarities end. The BCCA did not find the bylaw saved under the s.1 analysis. In the Court's view, the prohibition did not minimally impair the legitimate right to engage in political protest; a cherished Charter value residing at the very core of our democracy. In a word, the by-law was over broad and captured legitimate forms of expression.

After that Canada-wide tour, we are now back in Calgary. What conclusions can we draw based on these other cases? Clearly, the occupy protest has an expressive quality which is protected by s.2(b) of the Charter. However, whether the City ordinance will be a justifiable intrusion on that right is questionable and dependent on a number of factors, including the type of evidence the municipality will proffer to justify the legislation.

Whatever the outcome, this much is clear, the protesters are here to stay for the near future. Indeed, no Canadian City has successfully evicted the movement. In the end, when the dust is settled and the shoot-out is over, this gun-fight might just be a draw.