When does free speech go too far?
RCMP monitoring alleged yellow vest threats but the line is murky online
EDMONTON—It doesn’t take long to find posts criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the Yellow Vests Canada Facebook page. Still, some comments are more pointed than others.
Some wish him harm, while others suggest the commenter would like to be directly involved in the violence. There are accusations of treason and calls for assassination and hanging.
But there’s a legal distinction between wishing misfortune upon someone and a direct threat, said Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta. And it gets more complicated in the online sphere.
“It may be more difficult to prove that the threat was intended to be taken seriously or literally as opposed to a failed attempt at humour or political expression,” Penney said.
The tricky legal line between free speech and death threats shows how hostile discourse has grown in what Penney calls “polarized political times.”
The Yellow Vest movement started in France to protest taxation, a high cost of living and business-friendly economic reform. In Canada, it has challenged policies seen as hostile toward the oil-and-gas industry, such as the carbon tax and Bill C-69, but has also broadened to criticize “mass migration,” illegal immigration and globalism.
Rallies have taken place at both the Alberta Legislature and Churchill Square in Edmonton every Saturday since at least Dec. 8.
While there are several Yellow Vests Canada Facebook pages, only one consistently posts events from across the country. That group has over 100,000 members and is rampant with posts attacking Trudeau.
The RCMP’s national headquarters said they are “aware” of the comments, while a Facebook spokesperson said they have removed content that violated their community standards .
Penney, who teaches criminal law, said in the end it doesn’t matter whether threats are online, face to face or in writing. The key is whether the possibility of violence is meant to be taken seriously.
“What you’re really looking for is someone who knowingly makes a statement that is of a threatening nature, obviously it implies the possibility of violence, that is intended to be taken seriously,” he said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you intend to carry out the threat.
Public safety concerns at thestar.com/edmonton
“IT MAY BE MORE DIFFICULT TO PROVE THAT THE THREAT WAS INTENDED TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY
Steven Penney, U of A law prof
Yellow vest supporters protest at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, Alta, in December.
Yellow vest protesters at a rally in Edmonton, Alta. on Dec. 15. One unifying aspect of the rallies is a strong opposition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.