Does Alberta's Bill 45 threaten media freedom?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Also posted on J-Source.

By Grant Buckler

Labour legislation passed by the Alberta government at the beginning of December is causing concern not just in government workplaces and union offices, but also in some newsrooms.

Bill 45, along with its companion legislation Bill 46, imposes fines for illegal strikes and abolishes arbitration. More than that, though, it bans anyone—whether a union officer or not—from counselling anyone to disobey any of the bill’s other provisions.

Section 4 of Bill 45 reads:

4(1) No employee and no trade union or officer or representative of a trade union shall cause or consent to a strike.
(2) No employee and no officer or representative of a trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat or a strike.
(3) No trade union shall engage in or continue to engage in any conduct that constitutes a strike threat.
(4) No person shall counsel a person to contravene subsection (1) or (2) or impede or prevent a person from refusing to contravene subsection (1) or (2).

Critics say this could be read as banning anyone—including editorial writers, newspaper columnists or broadcast commentators—from saying anything that could be considered encouragement to strike. And Section 18 of Bill 45 imposes a $500-a-day fine on anyone who breaks the rules in Section 4. The fine applies for as long as the contravention continues, which presumably would mean as long as a comment remained accessible online.

Writing in the Calgary Herald, columnist Don Braid called the legislation “bad policy that could lead to a lot of trouble.”

“People are not allowed to break laws,” he said, “but they are permitted, except in obvious cases of threatening harm, to talk about challenging, testing, pushing or even breaking them. The offence is in the breaking, not the talking. But not for Alberta's public unions. Talking is now pretty much illegal.”

Paul Knox, a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, told J-Source that at first glance it seems commentators would only be punished for calling for an illegal strike. “But where would the line be drawn?”

For instance, he suggested, would the following statements be illegal?

  • • Provincial employees are getting a raw deal in the workplace.
  • • I wouldn’t settle for a deal like that—I’d stay home.
  • • In the standoff between the province and its employees, those calling for an illegal walkout have the better moral claim.
  • Index on Censorship wrote that “journalists in the Canadian province of Alberta could see their right to free speech stifled.”

    In his blog Labour & Employment in Alberta, Bob Barnetson, a professor at Athabasca University, wrote that the bill will compel the provincial Labour Board and the courts “to impose outrageous and disproportionate sanctions upon workers, journalists, academics and trade unionists for under-taking Charter-protected actions (anyone remember freedom of speech and freedom of association)? Bill 45 clearly violates such constitutional protections but, until struck down, it will be the law of the land and thereby repress dissidence and opposition.”

    On December 12, the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE) filed a lawsuit against the provincial government over Bill 46.