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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2015

Critics fear Bill C-51 could limit free speech on campus

Demonstrators gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 14, during a national day of action protesting the Harper government's anti-terrorism bill.
Demonstrators gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 14, during a national day of action protesting the Harper government's anti-terrorism bill.
Thousands of Canadians across the country gathered earlier this month in a national day of protest against the federal government’s proposed national security legislation.

Protestors claimed Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, would give wide-ranging powers to police and security agencies and create a new criminal offence for advocating or promoting terrorism in general.

CAUT president Robin Vose joined the crowd rallied outside the Ottawa office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the day of action March 14, and warned the bill not only infringes on the civil liberties and freedoms of Canadians, but would also limit academic freedom and free speech on campus.

“Given the ambiguous and broad scope of the offence of advocating terrorism, academics may well be exposed to prosecution,” said Vose. “A professor leading a classroom debate about whether terrorism might be justified in some circumstances, such as in apartheid South Africa, may run into trouble.”

In a detailed review of the proposed legislation, law professors Kent Roach and Craig Forcese warn that the scope of the new criminal offence is not clear, and is broader than other crimes such as advocating genocide or willful promotion of hatred.

“We are unable to conclude … that journalists or academics could never be prosecuted under this offence,” they wrote. “This offence is at best ambiguous. And we have serious doubts whether it is consistent with the Charter.”

The law professors also note there is “no public interest or educational defences” against the new offence as there is for hate speech laws.

“In essence, this means that academics could not claim as a defence that any expressions they make that violate the offence had a legitimate educational purpose,” said CAUT executive director David Robinson.

Additionally, Robinson says Bill C-51 significantly expands security agencies’ power to share information without proper oversight.

“Professors studying controversial topics could be subjected to surveillance and sharing of personal information between government agencies without their knowledge,” Robinson said. “There is a real concern that this broad and unaccountable information sharing will have a chilling effect on aca­demic freedom and other forms of expression.”

The federal Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, has criticized the bill for giving as many as 17 federal departments and agencies access to every piece of information that any department might have on individual Canadians.

The Conservative Party used its majority on the House of Commons public safety committee to block Therrien from appearing before the committee’s public hearings on Bill C-51.

Other critics have expressed grave concerns that C-51 effectively gives security institutions like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service expanded mandates, including the possibility to proactively disrupt undefined “threats to the security of Canada.”

“In C-51 we are faced with a set of brand new and significantly revised national security laws that could undermine human rights more insidiously than at any time since the October 1970 invocation of the War Measures Act,” warned Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. “Allowing secretive human rights violations while fighting terrorism adds up to a heap of injustice.”

CAUT’s Vose added it’s disappointing the government has failed to learn lessons from the past of national security-linked human rights violations.

“We’ve had two judicial inquiries that have exposed Canada’s complicity in the torture of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin,” he said. “National security powers must always be accompanied by clear rules, meaningful safeguards and effective oversight mechanisms to avoid the harms to civil liberties. Those safeguards and oversight are absent in Bill C-51.”