"Are You Calling Me a Liar?": Reflections on Unparliamentary Language at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and Beyond.

AuthorCooper, Nathan

Dealing with unparliamentary language in an appropriate manner is an important way for the Speaker to maintain order, decorum, and civil discourse in the chamber. In this article, the author uses his point of view as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta to offer observations of how current and past presiding officers in Alberta, and elsewhere, have engaged in this process. He evaluates how a Speaker must strike a balance between permitting freedom of speech while also respecting the dignity of members and the assembly. He concludes by stressing the importance of context in communications in the chamber as opposed to rigid adherence in prohibiting certain words or phrases.

Maintaining order and decorum has been a vitally important endeavour in the parliamentary world for a very long time. While speeches can become impassioned and the atmosphere within parliamentary chambers heated, rules have been in place for centuries to ensure that a civil discourse among members prevails. It is the Speaker, along with the other presiding officers, who is responsible for enforcing these long-standing ndes.

This article examines recent use of unparliamentary language at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in the context of adhering to the longstanding principles of maintaining order, decorum, and civil discourse in our Chamber. From my point of view as Speaker of the Assembly, I will offer some observations on what the rule against unparliamentary language is, discuss how it is applied in Alberta, and relate some recent examples to illustrate the process. In addition, this article addresses the key questions of how unparliamentary language is currently being enforced and whether this approach remains relevant in modern legislatures. Does this ancient prohibition need to be changed or should it be business as usual?

The use of unparliamentary language is certainly not new. A procedural guide from the late 1500s warns that "no reviling or nipping wordes must be used. For then all the house will crie, it is against the order." (1) Another procedural manual from the mid-17th century explained that the Speaker was empowered to interrupt and admonish Members of Parliament for using "a range of evil words." (2) In more recent times, Sir Thomas Erskine May, former Clerk of the United Kingdom House of Commons (1871-1886), authored a definitive procedural work, first published in 1844 and now in its 25th edition (2019), which offers on the matter simply that "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language." (3)

Parliaments into the 20th and 21st centuries have carried on the prohibition against the use of unparliamentary language. Unparliamentary language has been defined in the leading procedural text for Canadian assemblies, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd edition, as follows:

The proceedings of the House are based on a long-standing tradition of respect for the integrity of all Members. Thus, the use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is strictly forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order. (4) This definition captures the sub-categories of unparliamentary language, which include a prohibition against offensive or disorderly words; personal reflections, including a prohibition against imputations of improper motives (e.g., allegations of corruption); and accusations of lying, which Speakers have consistently ruled out of order in Westminster parliaments for centuries. (5)

Although there is much more to say about the impact of accusations and imputations of lying and deceit, it's best to begin by examining the interplay between parliamentary language and another vitally important parliamentary principle--in fact a parliamentary privilege--freedom of speech.

Freedom of Speech

The right to freedom of speech in the parliamentary context was codified in the 1689 Bill of Rights, which provides that "the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside of Parliament." (6) It is important to note, however, that freedom of speech is not absolute. First of all, it does not cover everything that is said by parliamentarians or said within the parliamentary precincts. Instead, freedom of speech extends only to the business that is being transacted or which is ordered to come before parliament. Within this context, a member may state what they think fit in debate, in the words of Erksine May, "however offensive it may be to the feelings, or injurious to the character, of individuals" because the "Member is protected by parliamentary privilege from any action of defamation ..." (7) But even within this narrowed context, freedom of speech is limited in that it is subject to the rules of debate. While a Member is free to make statements of their choosing, they may not engage in unparliamentary...

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