Weaponizing Political Censure to Silence Dissent

Commentary, Culture Wars, Rick Mehta

In a democracy, decisions are based on how the majority of people vote on a given issue. However, having a majority of people vote in a certain way does not equate with a correct decision being made, especially if the decision is made with little to no discussion. Most people are familiar with the adage that might does not equal right.

To prevent poor decisions from being made, it is essential that dissenting views be expressed and discussed. Openness to dissention is what holds authority figures, in corporations and on governing boards, to be questioned when a reasonable person can argue that the actions of the majority of the members are excessive or outside of their mandate. The voices of dissent thus prevent the majority from making poor decisions (e.g., decisions that are unethical or excessively risky), which in turn also holds the body accountable to their constituents and to the public.

Oftentimes, people who are in positions of authority do not wish to have their actions questioned. In these situations, they may resort to political censure to silence voices of dissent. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, censure is defined as “a judgment involving condemnation” or “an official [or formal] reprimand”. When a person or a group of people have been censured for a “good and sufficient reason”, usually after the ones being censured have been given due process, then political censure can be justified. However, when it is used to silence dissent to protect the majority when they are making decisions that are unjustifiable, then political censure becomes a weapon to silence dissent.

A recent example of weaponized political censure occurred in Rocky View County, Alberta. According to the Calgary Herald, three councillors were banished from serving on governing committees and boards until October 2020, and will also have their salaries cut by 30% during this time, for two alleged breaches of the council’s code of conduct pertaining to the hiring of Chief Administrative Officer Al Hoggan. The first alleged breach was violating confidentiality by sharing information about the hiring process to their own lawyers. The second alleged breach was expressing their views to the Rocky View Weekly in letters to the editor. 

On the surface, both actions by the councillors would appear to be reasonable to anyone outside of the council. One would be hard pressed to find a reason to oppose a councillor asking for independent legal advice to ensure that a fair process is in place for the hiring of a senior administrator. 

With regard to the alleged breach of confidentiality, one must also consider two competing principles. The first competing principle to confidentiality is freedom of conscience, which is granted to all Canadian citizens under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The second competing principle to confidentiality is the principle of institutional transparency. Based on the premise that these two principles should take precedence over the principle of confidentiality, one could reasonably argue that the councillors were exercising due diligence by dissenting when the Rocky View Council was making a decision that the councillors believed to be unconscionable and against the interests of their constituents.  

Rather than address the concerns raised by the dissenters, the council decided to censure them. The rationale provided by Rocky View County Reeve Greg Boehlke was that the dissenters’ conduct was “disrespectful”. If the way that Boehlke’s comments have been reported in the Calgary Herald are accurate, it appears that Boehlke expects councillors to be respectful to him, but not the constituents in Rocky View County. It also appears that Boehlke expects other councillors to be respectful towards him when he has not provided evidence that he has been respectful towards the dissenters or to the concerns that they have raised.

The example with Rocky View County Council demonstrates the most direct way that political censure can be weaponized against dissent. Another method, if enacted, would prevent citizens from expressing dissenting views on the internet. According to an article published in January 2018, the federal government is considering reviving Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In 2013, this section was repealed because the legislation was overly broad and could infringe on Canadians’ rights under the Charter to free expression. One concern that was raised was that dissenting views could be censured under the guise of so-called hate speech, which in effect protects people from being criticized if they are a member of a protected group based on criteria such as their race. 

A second concern was that complaints made under Section 13 were dealt with by the quasi-judicial Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which has the power to charge fines of up to $10,000 and issue cease-and-desist orders. If revived, another concern for Canadians is how respondents to a complaint are given due process and are able to defend themselves if called to appear before the tribunal. With minimal recourse, it would be far too easy for a vexatious client to abuse this system by targeting those with whom they disagree. 

In order for a democracy to function and thrive, it requires that dissenting views be expressed. Weaponized political censure is both an affront and an assault on democracy in Canada because it penalizes people for exercising their rights under the Charter to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.