Canadian journalists face limits on free speech

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Journalists in the Canadian province of Alberta could see their right to free speech stifled as new legislation, aimed at suppressing the illegal striking of union members, will impose heavy fines on those who comment publically in favour of those picketing.

For members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) it has been illegal to strike since 1977. The new legislation, introduced by Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative government, will abolish the action of arbitration, as well as freezing wages and imposing fines, both for those who take part any form of “illegal” striking and those who comment on it.

According to Bob Barnetson, the director of the Human Resources and Labour Relations programme at Athabasca University, Bill 45 would see newspaper columnists who write opinion pieces about the plight of workers, or those who merely comment “the only option they have is to strike” handed a hefty penalty for their work. Making such comment would be a violation of section 4.4 of the bill.

“So what happens to the editor or academic?” Barnetson wrote on his blog  last week. “Well, s.18.1 says that if you violate s.4.4 you are guilty of an offence. Under s.18.1(d), the editor or academic would be liable for a fine of $500 a day per day of the contravention. Section 20(a) says that prosecution may occur within 1 year of the last day the offense occurred”.

David Climenhaga, a well-known labour blogger in Alberta, believes the imposed fines would stretch as far as catching-out members of the public who showed up at an “illegal” picket line or members of other unions, not subjected to the legislation, who joined a picket out of solidarity: “So, while the bill is mostly careful to restrict penalties to union members and officers, on the always dangerous question of free speech, it extends its attack to “any person” who says the wrong thing to a civil servant.”

Bill 46, which will run alongside Bill 45, will see the 21,642 members of the AUPE forced back to the bargaining table in January or accept a 0% wage increase for the next two years.

An earlier version of this article referred to Alberta as a state. It is a province.