When does free speech go too far?

RCMP mon­i­tor­ing al­leged yel­low vest threats but the line is murky on­line

StarMetro Edmonton - - FRONT PAGE - THES­TAR.COM /ED­MON­TON LAW EX­PERT EX­PLAINS

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.

Steven Pen­ney, U of A law prof “IT MAY BE MORE DIF­FI­CULT TO PROVE THAT THE THREAT WAS IN­TENDED TO BE TAKEN SE­RI­OUSLY OR LIT­ER­ALLY.”

OMAR MOSLEH/STARMETRO ED­MON­TON

Yel­low vest sup­port­ers protest at the Al­berta Leg­is­la­ture in Ed­mon­ton, Alta, in De­cem­ber.

OMAR MOSLEH/STARMETRO ED­MON­TON

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.

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