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Freedom of Speech in Canada

Freedom of Speech in Canada

Posted by Graeme Maitland — filed in Human Rights Law

You have rights.  You have a right to vote, a right to have Federal government services delivered to you in either English or French, and you have a right to go to court if you believe your rights have been infringed.  But what about your right to freedom of speech?

Freedom of Speech or Expression?

Thanks to the constant influx of American pop culture, Canadians know about the sainted American right of free speech.  It’s right there in the Bill of Rights; it’s their First Amendment.  It clearly says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech”.

But look in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and you will never find the word “speech”.  Instead under Section 2(b) the Canadian Charter you will see that everyone has “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression…”

Say Anything?

The freedom of expression in the Charter is there to stop the government from stopping you from expressing yourself.  However, there are limits that are allowed just like there are limits in the United States around freedom of speech.  The classic example, coming from an American case of Schenck v. United States, is that you cannot shout fire in a crowded theatre.  Canadian protections of freedom of expression are slightly different than the United States in terms of what they cover.  In general, the thought is that the government can limit this right if it is reasonable and can be justified in a free and democratic society.

Examples of the government infringing on freedom of expression include laws around hate speech and violent criminal acts.  Some infringements of freedom of expression are considered justified by the courts.  In 1989 the Supreme Court of Canada found that Quebec law restricting advertising to young children was an infringement of a toy company’s freedom of expression.  It was justified though, because the company was not prohibited from advertising at all.  In this case, the company could still advertise to adults who could then buy the toys for their kids.

There are also reasonable infringements in certain federal and provincial human rights legislation.  The Alberta Human Rights Act expressly prohibits “any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation that” discriminates against someone due to their race, religious beliefs, gender, age, and many other factors.

Too many Limitations?

The balancing of what kind of limits are and are not justified is not a fine science.  Courts have decided one way, and then changed their minds later under difference circumstances.  And legislation is designed to have a degree of ambiguity in it.  So there are times when what looks like a reasonable limit is actually unreasonable.  This can effect people whose rights are being infringed or people who are being accused of infringing other’s rights.

If you believe your rights have been infringed, or someone has brought a complaint against you, speak to one of the lawyers at Aarbo Fuldauer LLP in Calgary.

Address: 3rd Floor, 1131 Kensington Road NW, Calgary, AB, T2N 3P4

Phone: (403) 571-5120


The information in the blog is not legal advice. Do not treat or rely upon it as legal advice.  If you require legal assistance, please contact a lawyer.
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