Watson faces legal challenge over blocking residents on Twitter

Jim Watson
Jim Watson

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is the target of a test legal case that could prompt politicians all across the country to reconsider their use of social media.

Three city residents are seeking a court order declaring that Watson infringed their constitutional right to freedom of expression by blocking them from his Twitter feed.

Watson says that it’s his personal Twitter account and he has the right to decide who can see his tweets or comment on them.

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“I have the right not to be attacked and harassed by the same individuals on a regular basis,“ he said in a brief statement.

“I believe in civility in public discourse, and this type of behaviour would not be tolerated in a face-to-face debate. I look forward to dealing with this matter in due course.“

But Paul Champ, the lawyer representing the trio, said Watson uses his Twitter account to communicate with Ottawans about municipal issues and it is, therefore, “profoundly undemocratic“ for him to block certain residents.

“Mayor Watson is an elected public official who uses his Twitter account for public purposes and for his public business. He uses it to tweet about announcements and policies and bylaws and emergency issues, all kinds of things related to the business of the City of Ottawa,“ Champ said in an interview.

“The residents of Ottawa, who are citizens, have the right to view those tweets and, if they want, given the platform of Twitter, to express their opinions on that.“

Champ said the same arguments could apply to other social media platforms, such as Facebook where politicians routinely delete comments that they find disagreeable or offensive and with which they don’t want to be associated.

The three individuals challenging Watson are lawyer Emilie Taman, a twice-failed candidate for the NDP, postal worker union representative James Hutt and Dylan Penner, media officer for the Council of Canadians.

Champ said it’s “completely wrong“ to suggest any of the trio have attacked or harassed Watson. He said they’ve always been civil in their criticism or questioning of Watson’s policies or statements and appear to have been blocked simply because Watson didn’t like what they had to say.

“It just seems in a fit of pique he blocks people.“

Should the challenge succeed, the case could have repercussions for politicians at every level across the country.

Most politicians, particularly women, have experienced “trolls“ who use social media to spew hate, personal vitriol or profanity or who just become persistent, obnoxious pests. And most have likely blocked such individuals from their Twitter and other social media accounts.

Champ noted that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and blocking truly hateful, offensive or harassing comments could be justified under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He acknowledged, however, that politicians would have to use to their judgment to decide when blocking is justifiable and when it’s not and that could be awkward.

“These are the kinds of things, the etiquette and the norms around the use of Twitter for political purposes are something that are just developing now. Politicians should be thinking about how they use it and when they use it and how it informs public debate and political discussion and, in some cases, how they inhibit political discussions,“ Champ said.

“At some point, at some place, I think there is going to be guidelines and maybe even enforceable law around how they use Twitter, which is fair and appropriate I think given how prevalent it is today … The fact there haven’t been any rules or norms around the use of social media yet for politicians doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any.“

The case – the first of its kind in Canada – is scheduled to be heard Jan. 31 in Ontario Superior Court.

Last May, a federal judge in the United States ruled that President Donald Trump, likely the world’s most inveterate political tweeter, violated the constitutional rights of seven Twitter users who sued after they were blocked from viewing or responding to his tweets. The White House is appealing that ruling but has unblocked the seven individuals in the meantime.

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