Our lawsuit against Steven Guilbeault makes national news

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There was a big story on page 3 of the National Post, and apparently in 100+ other Postmedia newspapers today — I couldn’t find a hard copy in Toronto, I swear.

You can see the headline: “Liberal minister breached Charter by blocking Rebel News chief on Twitter: legal challenge”. That was the website headline; the paper headline was “Levant argues minister violated Charter rights".

The actual piece is pretty snarky. But it was the second-most read story in the whole chain. That makes me laugh sometimes.

We cover very interesting and newsworthy things at Rebel News, and we are obviously watched very closely by the Media Party. But they sometimes can’t or won’t talk about what we talk about — they’re simply not allowed. And when they do, it goes viral.

Let me read the story, from Tom Blackwell, who obviously doesn’t like us but can’t stop watching us.

(By the way, he never contacted me for the story.)

I should tell you, the text of the online version seems to have changed throughout the day — I’m going to read to you the final version, which had some of the snark taken out of it.

It happens every day: someone on Twitter gets fed up with criticism or abuse from another user of the social media platform and blocks the person from their feed.

But what if the Twitter account belongs to a federal cabinet minister, and jamming the other individual essentially cuts off access to a form of government communication?”

That’s a good question, actually.

"That question is at the heart of an intriguing constitutional challenge by right-wing provocateur Ezra Levant, who alleges that Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault violated his constitutional right to free expression when he Twitter-blocked the Rebel News head.Levant called Guilbeault a “convicted criminal,” incompetent and stupid in responding to the minister’s posts on Twitter, but says he had a right to follow and comment on the minister.His application to the Federal Court says section 2(b) of the Charter, which guarantees free expression and freedom of the press, also protects access to government information in order that “meaningful” discussion about it is possible.”

The case has yet to get a full hearing in court, but already is raising novel questions about government use of a social media platform often called a digital public square. Fred Kozak, a leading Alberta media lawyer who has acted both for and against Levant, said he doesn’t always agree with Rebel’s opinions or tactics, but believes there’s merit to the Twitter argument. The courts have interpreted the free expression section as a “bundle” of rights that covers more than just actual expression, he said.“I don’t think you can identify and use a communications and access mechanism, and then deny access to somebody who disagrees with your perspective,” said Kozak. “That is not how democracies are supposed to operate.”

But Levant’s own behaviour might pose some obstacles in the case, says lawyer Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. On the face of it, what Guilbeault did seems to violate freedom of expression, she said, noting that courts in the U.S. ruled President Donald Trump and other politicians had breached America’s similar First Amendment by blocking certain Twitter users. But the right in Canada is not as absolute and courts here may rule that online abuse is a legitimate reason for a government representative to block someone, said Zwibel. The Charter allows some violations if they’re deemed a reasonable limitation on the right. “There is a strong argument that public officials have an obligation to communicate in a way that is open to people to respond to,” she said. “Elected officials have to have a bit of a thick skin and be prepared to deal with the criticism … (But) there is a point where the line gets crossed into personal attacks and harassment.”

Personal attacks and harassment? She made that up. I called him a convicted criminal. That’s true.

Here’s another thing I said about him: 

For a convicted criminal — the only criminal I’m aware of who has ever been appointed to federal cabinet — Guilbeault is a terribly bad liar. By the way, calling someone a bad liar is a kind of compliment.

Reminder: Guilbeault is a convicted criminal that Trudeau put in cabinet over police objections. He’s the perfect thug to be in charge of silencing Trudeau’s opponents.

Those are the two toughest things I’ve ever said about him. I didn’t swear, I didn’t threaten. And, if you understand Twitter, you’ll understand that I didn’t tag him or name him — this wouldn’t have come up in his Twitter feed, unless he or his staff were actively searching for people talking about him.

I wish Cara Zwibel and the CCLA cared more about civil liberties. I mean, it’s nice to hear from her after her three year vacation during the civil liberties bonfire of the pandemic. I guess there was nothing for her or the CCLA to do during that time.

Guibeault’s office and his personal lawyer declined to comment while the case is before the courts. Rebel lawyer Chad Williamson was not available. The action originally also targeted former environment minister Catherine McKenna and her own blocking of Levant, but her name was removed from the case after she quit politics in 2021.

Calgary-based Rebel News has long been a controversial loudspeaker for Canada’s hard right. As well as being a resolute doubter of climate change and critic of COVID vaccines, the online outlet once promoted a conspiracy theory that a Muslim had perpetrated the 2017 Quebec City mosque mass murder; reported sympathetically from 2020’s racist “unite-the-right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. (before firing its correspondent there); faced boycotts by Conservatives and other politicians; and hosted Gavin McInnes, founder of the alt-right Proud Boys.

There's a lot of lies in there, actually. About climate change; about COVID vaccines vs. mandates, about the Quebec City mosque attack; about Charlottesville. But let's continue:

Guilbeault, who was heritage minister at the time and introducing a bill on online hate speech, blocked Levant in early 2020. Rebel lawyers note the Liberal could have instead just “muted” Levant, which would have prevented the Rebel tweets from appearing on his timeline but wouldn’t block the commentator from seeing the minister’s posts.Kozak noted that Levant could still get access to the minister’s tweets from someone who had not been blocked, but said the courts might view that as weak justification for blocking someone.Zwibel, though, said a 2010 Supreme Court of Canada ruling makes it difficult to argue that merely blocking a person on Twitter breaches their rights, if the same information is available elsewhere.

Huh? Here’s that caseFrom the headnote:

The trial judge ordered a stay of proceedings in a murder trial, finding many instances of abusive conduct by state officials. The Ontario Provincial Police investigated and exonerated the police of misconduct without giving reasons for their finding. Concerned about the disparity between the findings at trial and the conclusion of the police investigation, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (“CLA”) made a request under the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (“FIPPA”) to the responsible Minister for disclosure of records relating to the investigation. The records at issue were a lengthy police report and two documents containing legal advice. FIPPA exempts various categories of documents from disclosure, some of which may be disclosed pursuant to a discretionary ministerial decision, including law enforcement records under s. 14 and solicitor‑client privileged records under s. 19.

"The real constitutional issue before the Court is whether the failure to extend the s. 23 public interest override to documents for which law enforcement or solicitor‑client privilege are claimed violates the guarantee of freedom of expression in s. 2(b) of the Charter. Section 2(b) of the Charter guarantees freedom of expression, but it does not guarantee access to all documents in government hands.

Sorry, a secret and private legal memo is not the same as a public twitter service. I think Cara Zwibel has been on vacation too long. But still:

In that Ontario case, the top court said the Charter’s free-expression section can require governments to release information, but only if denying access to it “effectively precludes meaningful public discussion on matters of public interest.”Guilbeault’s office did not comment on why the Rebel founder was blocked. But an affidavit filed by the minister’s lawyers contains a number of tweets posted by Levant about Guilbeault.In some he refers without elaboration to the minister being a “convicted criminal,” an apparent reference to Guilbeault’s conviction for public mischiefafter climbing the CN Tower for a climate change protest while working for Greenpeace.

Levant suggests in other tweets that Guilbeault is one of the “dumbest” ministers, “one of the most incompetent,” a “terribly bad liar” and a “perfect thug” assigned to silence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s critics.In a legal motion decided recently, Rebel’s lawyers urged the court to toss out the affidavit displaying the tweets, arguing it was prejudicial to their case but of little evidentiary value.Justice Alan Diner ruled against Levant, saying “prejudice has not been demonstrated and the evidence is not obviously irrelevant.”

Can you ban anyone for any or no reason? With no explanation? From getting a service (not a secret memo, a service).

Now, that's just the story. The replies to the National Post's story were a hoot. Commenters were knocking Postmedia for taking money from the government, while others were applauding our news coverage. Some noticed that, hey, maybe there's some truth about Steven Guilbeault here. And then, the Liberal bots were unleashed.

Sometimes the comments are even better than the story itself.

Now, if this is a story you care about, you can learn more about it at our website TwitterLawsuit.ca. Stay tuned, that trial is set to happen this June in Toronto.

GUEST: Rachel Emmanuel on British Columbia hiring the recently-fired former Alberta chief medical officer, Deena Hinshaw.

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