Controversy Over a Manitoba Teacher’s Freedom of Political Expression

Elementary_classroom_in_Alaska

Just last week, a Manitoba teacher was called out for exercising his political voice on the job. A Conservative MP visited the teacher’s school for an “I Love to Read” event where she read books with students. After the event, the MP was asked by a teacher to take  a photograph with them while they held a sign that read “Trudeau is just the worst”. This photo was later privately posted to social media and has incited a variety of reactions- ranging from chuckles to outrage. In response, the school division responded that they were investigating the incident. This raises the serious legal question: can a teacher can exert their s 2(b) Charter right of free thought, belief or opinion whilst in the presence of students (or if students may be influenced by it)?

Though it may be ill advised by school divisions that teachers enforce their political views upon their students, the freedom to use your political voice is something that is extremely well protected in Canada. In Harper v Canada, the Supreme Court emphasized the importance of political speech and in the dissent, then Chief Justice McLaughlin recognizes political speech as the most important type of protected speech. 

In a similar vein, the case of British Columbia Public School Employers’ Association v BCTF  found that the section 2(b) freedoms of several teachers were infringed upon when their school (represented by BCPSEA) told them that they couldn’t send their students home with pamphlets denouncing a skills assessment test administered in the school. In the pamphlet, it gave the parents the opportunity to excuse their children from the tests- something which many of the teachers were in support of.

If it was found that the above situation constituted an infringement of s 2(b), I find it difficult to justify that a school division has the right to suppress the political voice of one of its’ employees- especially when it’s one of the most fundamental types of speech protected in Canada. From an objective non-legal standpoint, I understand that the school division may be worried that their employee’s conduct may reflect their political views or that their employee’s views may influence their students’. 

Whilst the teacher’s actions in this case may have been ill-advised, I feel that if he were to face any adverse punishments, it would be unjust given the protections of speech under the Charter. As a student, I can attest to having been subjected to all sorts of political views shared by my teachers in both secondary and post-secondary school. Furthermore, what the teacher was expressing wasn’t anything outrageously hateful or along the lines of Keegstra, where an infringement on the s 2(b) freedom of speech was found to be permissible given the extreme offensive nature of the hate speech. Finally, there’s no indication that the teacher attempted to sway his student’s thoughts or opinions with the photograph- rather it was posted privately to his social media account. Ultimately, while the teacher may have exercised bad judgement, to limit his freedom of thought, belief or opinion would be against the precedent set by the Supreme Court and the provisions of the Charter.


Sources:

Harper v Canada, 2004 SCC 33.

British Columbia Public School Employers’ Assn v BCTF, 2008 BCCAAA No 51, BCWLD 2195. 

R v Keegstra, 1996 1 SCR 458.