There is something undeniably satisfying about blocking a troublesome person on Twitter. One click, and the noise is over.
But that simple act, if carried out by a government official, could end up being unconstitutional in Canada if a newly launched court challenge is successful against Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
Three Ottawa residents formally launched a case against Watson this week, arguing that he is violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when he blocks users on Twitter.
Here’s how it’s worded in the application filed this week with Ontario Superior Court:
Watson’s Twitter account is “a public digital space where individuals can express and disseminate their views on public matters,” and his blocking of citizens’ access to his account “infringes their right to freedom of expression as protected by subsection 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Their lawyer is Paul Champ and I talked to him briefly this week after he filed the application. Yes, it’s true, Champ said — politicians don’t have any constitutional obligations to listen to citizens in Canada, with some notable, if limited exceptions seen in recent court cases about Indigenous rights.
But the Charter does give us rights to speak, and like it or not, a lot of that dialogue between the government and the governed is taking place on Twitter.
We probably have Donald Trump to thank for that. As it happens, the president was also found in violation of the U.S. Constitution earlier this year for his habit of blocking people on Twitter. (The Star’s Daniel Dale enjoys the distinction of being one of those who Trump has blocked, it should be noted, though he wasn’t part of that case.) While that U.S. court decision doesn’t count as a legal precedent here, it’s a powerful example.
A couple of years ago, I was predicting that Twitter would fade away as a social medium in politics, merely because I was hearing so many people in politics talk of their fatigue or annoyance with it. But the ascent of Trump and his style of politics has turned it into the perfect channel for the distemper of our times — a place for polarized political rivals to yell past each other with personal insults and tribal rallying cries.
It’s a bit uncomfortable to see that kind of debate elevated to the realm of cherished constitutional rights, in the United States or Canada, but here we are.
Watson, in his defence, has said his Twitter account is personal and that he has the right to block people on social media in the same way that he has the right to walk away in public from those exercising their free speech too aggressively.
I don’t know about that first part. In this day and age, can politicians or any person, really, neatly divide their social-media lives into separate, public/private categories? During the recent tornado in Ottawa, for instance, Watson was tweeting out important public notices about the recovery and rescue efforts.
But many of us can have some sympathy for the Ottawa mayor’s views about having the right to walk away from pointless interactions. I do a lot of blocking on Twitter and don’t feel badly about it — though this case does have me thinking.
One of the unfortunate side effects of seeing citizens as consumers is this whole idea that customers are always right. That may be a good strategy for running a business, but it’s simply not true that in a democracy, citizens are always correct. Some people trying to elbow their way into the public square are just plain wrong — climate-change deniers, white supremacists, or any of those folks who try to trade on the idea that saying a blatantly wrong fact publicly makes it true.
The citizens involved in the case against Mayor Watson don’t fall into this category; as mentioned, they are serious people. But if they are successful in making Twitter access a constitutional right, are we somehow cheapening the idea of what counts for public/political debate in 2018?
The Ottawa complainants make a good case in their application that Twitter has become a public-information channel and politicians have no more right to block citizens from that sphere than they do in other realms. You don’t see mayors, except in rare circumstances, being allowed to stop people from walking into city hall or cutting them from municipal mailing lists.
I’m guessing, inexpertly, though, that the Ottawa case might be stronger if the complainants can argue that Watson is giving information exclusively through Twitter that he isn’t giving through other channels — that it is, as Trump has more or less rendered it, an official, stand-alone medium.
However, Twitter does give another option — “muting.” When you “mute” someone, you don’t see their Tweets, but they can still see what you are posting.
That sounds just about perfect for politics these days — the right to speak, but no obligation to listen. Very 2018. For what it’s worth, the Ottawa complainants say they’d be fine if Watson merely muted them on Twitter.
When I set out to write this column this week, I asked around about whether any of the political parties had policies for blocking on Twitter. The prime minister’s account, @JustinTrudeau, does not block any users, PMO spokesman Cameron Ahmad told me, but some ministers may block “in the case of bots, abusive or threatening language.” The New Democrats, including leader Jagmeet Singh, have an informal policy of discouraging blocking, I was told. No one for the Conservatives got back to me by deadline. However, I have seen people complaining about various MPs in that caucus blocking critics on Twitter — Michelle Rempel is reportedly an enthusiastic blocker — so I assume no prohibition on blocking exists for the official Opposition.
That could all change if this interesting challenge with the Ottawa mayor goes ahead and suddenly Twitter access is deemed a Charter right. A court date has already been set for the end of January and many of us will be keenly watching.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt