Freedom of Expression

AuthorRobert J. Sharpe; Kent Roach
Even before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of expression
was recognized by t he Supreme Court of Canada as inherent in our sys -
tem of government.1 Democracy rests on the premise that public issues
be freely and openly debated. Indeed, the free dom to criticize those who
exercise power in our society is the very lifeblood of our democratic
tradition. Political debate is often heated and intemper ate. Criticism of
public institutions and ocials will not always be respectful and meas-
ured as those who challenge established authority often have to resort
to strong language and exag geration in order to gain attention. But “[i]f
these exchanges a re stif‌led, democratic government itself is threatened.”2
Freedom of expression is also v ital in other areas of human activity
outside the realm of politics. Art ists and writers often push the lim its of
conventional values. Scholars question “sacred cows” and accepted wi s-
dom. Freedom of expression represents society’s commitment to toler-
ate the annoyance of being confronted by unaccept able views. As stated
by the Ontario Court of Appeal in an early Charter c ase, “[T]he consti-
tutional guarantee extends not only to that which is pleasing, but als o
to that which to many may be ae sthetically dista steful or morally oen-
sive: it is indeed often true that ‘one man’s vulgar ity is another’s lyr ic.’”3
More recently, the Supreme Court of Canada emphasized that freedom
1 Reference Re Albe rta Legislation, [1938] SCR 100, [1938] 2 DLR 81.
2 R v Kopyto (1987), 62 OR (2d) 449 at 462, 47 DLR (4th) 213 (CA) [Kopyto], Cory JA.
3 Re Information Re tailers Association and Metrop olitan Toronto (1985), 22 DLR
(4th) 161 at 180 (Ont CA), Robins JA.
Freedom of Expres sion 177
of expression must include the “right to express outrageous and ridicu-
lous opinions” and that as “[p]ublic controversy can be a rough trade . . .
the law needs to accommodate its requirements.”4
There are two rationales for extending the guarantee this w idely.
The f‌irst is instrumental in nature and is ref‌lected by t he metaphor
of the “marketplace in ideas.” The great American judge Oliver Wen-
dell Holmes, echoing the thoughts of John Milton and John Stuart Mill,
said that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself
accepted in the competition of the market.”5 Suppression of ideas in the
name of truth is notoriously da ngerous. The rationale of the marketplace
of ideas posits that t he free f‌low of ideas is the best way to get at the truth.
The second important rationale values ex pression less for the results
it produces than for its intrinsic worth to the individual. Ex pression is
seen as a vital element of indiv idual autonomy, personal growth, and
self-realization. The ability to say what one thinks and to follow what-
ever lines of inquiry t hat occur to one’s imagination is an es sential
attribute of a free society.
In a 2002 decision,6 the Supreme Court of Canada summ arized the
values protected by freedom of expression in these terms:
The core values which free expr ession promotes include self-fulf‌i l-
ment, participat ion in social and politic al decision-making, a nd the
communal excha nge of ideas. Free speech protects hum an dignity
and the right to th ink and ref‌lect freely on one’s circum stances and
condition. It allows a person to sp eak not only for the sake of expres-
sion itself, but also to advoc ate change, attempting to persua de others
in the hope of improving one’s life and p erhaps the wider soci al, pol-
itical, a nd economic envi ronment.7
Does freedom of expression preclude any law li miting what individuals
can say or publish? The answer is surely no. To take a familiar e xample,
4 WIC Radio Ltd v Simpson, 20 08 SCC 40, [2008] 2 SCR 420 at paras 4 and 15
[WIC Radio].
5 Abrams v United States, 250 US 616 at 630 (1919).
6 Retail, Wholesale and Depa rtment Store Union, Local 558 v Pepsi-Cola Canad a
7 Ibid at 399 (DLR).
freedom of expression does not protect the right, fa lsely, to shout “Fire!
in a crowded theatre.8 As wit h the other rights and freedoms guara nteed
by the Charter, freedom of expression is not absolute. There are situa-
tions in which the freedom of one individual must be curtailed so th at
other important social values may be respected and protected.
How should these competing claims be reconciled? The American
approach has been to accord near-absolute respect to expre ssion deemed
worthy of the constitutional guarantee; however, the American courts
def‌ine freedom of expression nar rowly so as not to include forms of
speech that do not qualif y for protection. The Supreme Court of Canada
has adopted a dierent method to reconcile respect for thi s vital free-
dom with competing claim s. Our Court has said th at the structure of
the Charter, in particular sect ion 1, requires that freedom of expre ssion
be given a broad def‌inition with virtually no limitations and that any
curtailment of ex pression be justif‌ied under section 1 as a li mit that is
reasonable in a free and democratic society.
In 1988, the Supreme Court heard two cases f rom Quebec in which
it charted the course to be followed. Ford v Quebec (Attorney General)9
involved a challenge to the Quebec “signs law,” which prohibited, with
virtual ly no exception, the display of commercial sign s not written in
French. Ford was argued at the same time as Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec
(Attorney General),10 which involved a challenge to a Quebec statute
that limited the r ight to broadcast advertising aimed at children. In
both cases, the attorney general of Quebec argued that the law did not
limit freedom of expression. In Ford, Quebec contended that the sig ns
law did not limit in any way the mes sage that could be conveyed. The
language of the speaker was merely the medium for expression. It was
contended in both cases th at commercial expression is not worthy of
constitutional protection and that the Court should adhere to a core
def‌inition of freedom of expression, lim iting the right to the most vita l
areas of political speech and artistic expression. The Supreme Court
rejected these arguments, holding t hat freedom of expression should be
given a wide and generous def‌inition, admitti ng few exceptions. Yet, at
the same time, the Court recog nized that expre ssion may be curtailed
if the standard of sect ion 1 is met.
In Ford, the Court stated that language was an essential component
of expression: “Lang uage is so intimately related to the form and content
of expression that there c annot be true freedom of expression by means
8 Schenk v United States, 249 US 47 at 52 (1919), Holmes J.
9 Ford v Quebec (Attorney General), [1988] 2 SCR 712, 54 DLR (4th) 577 [Ford].
10 Irwin Toy Ltd v Quebec (Attor ney General), [1989] 1 SCR 927, 58 DLR (4th) 577
[Irw in To y].

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