When someone says “it’s not about freedom of speech,” it’s definitely about freedom of speech

The Trudeau government may extend the fight against COVID-19 to limiting what you and I can say about it:

The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc.

LeBlanc told CBC News he is interested in British MP Damian Collins’s call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic.

LeBlanc said he has discussed the matter already with other cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister David Lametti. If the government decides to follow through, he said, it could take a while to draft legislation.

“Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it’s not a quick solution, but it’s certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government,” said LeBlanc.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said he would support legislation to fight online misinformation.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public,” he said.

“This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it’s through troll bot farms, whether [it’s] state operators or whether it’s really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc.”

Leonard Sirota, a Canadian now teaching constitutional law in New Zealand, describes the damage this would do long after the coronavirus pandemic has passed:

It is far from clear just what these restrictions are meant to accomplish. The CBC report quotes a spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment, an intelligence agency, as warning about “cybercriminals and fraudsters” who “encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links” that purport to provide health information. But fraud, for example, is already a crime; there is no need for “extraordinary measures” to prohibit it, or for broadly defined bans on “misinformation”. The report also says that “Health Canada … is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19”. It is not quite clear what sort of compliance is in question here, but presumably ― or at least hopefully ― it’s compliance with existing laws, perhaps ones having to do with advertising, or specifically advertising of health products. If so, then why is more legislation necessary?

For his part, the NDP MP tells, darkly, of “troll bot farms, state operators or … conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc”. State actors with troll bot farms at their disposal are unlikely to be deterred by Canadian legislation. At most, then, it will be targeting conspiracy theorists… and giving them more ammunition for believing the government is hiding things. Is there any evidence at all, actually, that “conspiracy theorist cranks” ― especially ones within the reach of Canadian laws, and not the one domiciled at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC ― are having a real effect on Canada’s response to the plague?

And on the other side of the scales, there will be real costs to this proposed legislation. Even if it includes the mens rea requirements of knowledge, wilfulness, and malice ― which, if applied, would result in good faith conspiracist cranks being off the hook ― the law is likely to produce chilling effects. Worse, attempts to enforce it, even if they do not ultimately lead to convictions, will target the politically unpopular, or simply those who happen for one reason or another, to incur the displeasure of police services and prosecutors. …

[…]

Once the plague is over, it will be all too tempting to declare something else the next great public emergency, and to repurpose, instead of abolishing, the censorship mechanisms that allow government to silence those who question or undermine its response ― even if stupidly.

If there is there one thing we’ve learned from events of barely a year ago, it’s that clerks of the Privy Council are not always imbued with a great respect for constitutional propriety, or immune to the temptation to shill for their political masters. I would not trust one of them with the job of a Minister of Truth. Nor would I trust the public health authorities, which themselves at times seem quite confused about what the truth is. Indeed, this confusion only serves to underlie the fact that a government that is entitled to impose the truth on its subjects ― who can no longer be counted as citizens ― is also a government that is empowered to lie to them. No one, after, is allowed, and at length able, to tell the difference. The Canadian government needs to reverse course before it becomes a government of this sort.

Whenever I come across a political partisan promoting such restrictions on freedom of expression, I ask them if they’re prepared to trust these tools in the hands of the other team. You guys won’t be in power forever. When it’s your side being told what they can and can’t say, don’t whine about how you weren’t warned.

Co-parenting during the pandemic

It’s the question I’ve been asked more than any other since the age of social distancing began: how does this affect parenting time with my children?

The answer, as reported in the Chronicle Herald:

While safety precautions must be kept in mind, court orders and agreements for parenting time must be followed by both parents:

Shared parenting can be done safely during the pandemic by following public health guidance, says a Nova Scotia family law expert.

“As long as both parents follow the public health directives they should continue to comply with their parenting orders and agreements,” said Rollie Thompson, a Dalhousie University law professor.

The province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang created unnecessary confusion for co-parents on March 31 when he said in his daily briefing that children should remain in one home during the COVID-19 lockdown, Thompson said.

Strang backtracked the next day, acknowledging he was offering a public health perspective and reminded parents to follow court orders and parenting arrangements. He said parents could get advice from a lawyer or Nova Scotia Legal Aid and “if possible and safe to do so … should develop a plan with the understanding that moving about in the community and going from house to house does increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”

“I think Dr. Strang should stick to public health and stay away from family law,” said Thompson.

Thompson, an expert in family law, co-wrote the federal government’s Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines. He said that the vast majority of co-parents in the province can be counted on to follow the social distancing rules. That includes moving kids from one parent’s home to another.

Thompson’s advice to co-parents and their kids is to follow four instructions during the pandemic:

– continue to comply with parenting orders and agreements;

– comply with public health directives to protect your health;

– when health or other unexpected problems arise, be flexible to do what’s in the best interests of your children;

– and above all, work together and avoid conflict.

[…]

The Nova Scotia Judiciary said that existing court orders around parenting time continue to be in effect during the COVID-19 crisis. Jennifer Stairs, a spokeswoman for the judiciary, said those orders — including those involving custody, access, contact and parenting — could be negotiated as long as all parties involved agree.

Unfortunately, I’ve already been forced to deal with several cases where a parent either believes the COVID-19 pandemic means they can’t allow their child to spend time with the other parent, or where they’re using it as an excuse to deny access.

If this is happening to you, contact your lawyer immediately. If you aren’t yet represented by counsel, Nova Scotia Legal Aid may be of assistance:

Nova Scotia Legal Aid is offering help for parents trying to wade through the confusion. Lawyers will process emergency family matters for people who qualify for legal aid. Free twice-weekly online chats are also being offered on the Nova Scotia Legal Aid website. Lawyers will be manning the online discussions on family law issues. They are scheduled Tuesday and Thursday, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Those who don’t qualify for legal aid can access family summary advice at all courthouses through scheduled telephone appointments.

COVID-19 and the courts

The courts of Nova Scotia have issued several memoranda explaining how its practices and procedures have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic:

If you are dealing with any legal matters at the moment, make sure to contact your lawyer and check the courts website to see how your case is being affected.

As for me, my office is closed to the public and I’m working from home. But I’m still meeting with clients when needed – albeit by teleconference or video calling apps. My contact information remains the same, but regular mail may be delayed – email or fax is the best way to get a hold of me.

In the meantime, stay home and keep washing those hands!