Last summer Charles LeBlanc, a resident of Fredericton, New Brunswick, who seems to be the sort of character people politely describe as a "well-known local gadfly," said something uncomplimentary on his blog about a Fredericton police officer. It is not clear exactly what he said, or why it was fundamentally different from all the invective LeBlanc has hurled at local cops and politicians over the years. But he says it prompted an eight-man raid of his apartment last Thursday, during which the Fredericton Police Force, the same agency he has repeatedly and vociferously criticized, seized his computer as evidence of "defamatory libel." In Canada that redundant-sounding offense is not a tort but a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison. LeBlanc has agreed to appear in court on April 20.
University of New Brunswick law professor Jula Hughes tells the Fredericton Daily Gleaner it is very unusual to pursue libel as a criminal matter, even in Canada. In such a case, she says, the burden is on the defendant to prove the truth of his allegedly libelous statement. Another possible defense is to argue that the defendant sincerely believed the statement to be true, since the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that intent is an element of criminal libel. The Daily Gleaner paraphrases Julian Walker, who "teaches a course in free speech and the free press at St. Thomas University in Fredericton," as saying "it seems awkward a police officer would be the one to launch a defamatory libel case."
Fredericton City Councillor Jordan Graham agrees, telling CBC News:
Civil liberties, I do believe, are being attacked here—whether it's a concerted effort, or it's an attempt to just scratch an itch….I think that if you're going to be going after members of the media or people that promote public discussion through criticism with this law, it creates concerns about how honest of a dialogue we can have with people and with government, and I think that's a fundamental liberty we all have to have….The real problem isn't about whether or not we like what Charles is saying. That to me is not the issue here. It's whether or not he should be able to say it and how we deal with that as a society….I have a huge problem with this being a criminal issue.
Even assuming that a criminal investigation is appropriate, Graham says, the Fredericton police should not be handling it because they have a clear conflict of interest. On his blog Graham writes:
Leblanc has been an activist that calls out government on what he thinks is wrong. His comments are colorful and in some cases kooky, but they never incite harm….Leblanc has frustrated a lot of people, but I believe in his sincere goal: he wants tomorrow's government to be better than today's, which according to his plan, should be better than yesterday's. Prior to this whole fiasco, he referred to the police as being fascist and operating like the KGB. It sounds crazy coming from him on his bright picket signs, but now it's less funny….Whether it was intended or not, the City of Fredericton is sending a message that nuisances will be silenced, and that people should think twice about taking on the state….I find this type of behavior to be morally reprehensible and a giant step back for political discourse in Fredericton. We're all fools if we don't think the next journalist to call out the police isn't going to be looking over their shoulder.
At least as scary as the raid itself is the fact that Graham feels a need to explain at length (as you will see if you read the whole post) that 1) freedom of speech is important to the proper functioning of a liberal democracy, 2) people have a right to freedom of speech even if we don't like what they say, 3) empowering police to arrest people who criticize them might have a chilling effect on speech. It's a miracle that someone like the Hayek-quoting Graham can get elected in a political culture where these points remain controversial.