Emilie Taman, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and two-time federal NDP candidate, James Hutt, a campaigner for the Canadian Union for Postal Workers, and Dylan Penner, a media officer with the Council of Canadians, filed their application against the mayor in court on Tuesday.
The group’s lawyer, Paul Champ, said this marks the first time a legal challenge of this kind has been filed in a Canadian court and suggested the court’s decision could have a ripple effect beyond the city.
“The application itself only applies to Mayor Watson but I think a legal precedent would be clear that any other elected public official who uses their Twitter account for public business would also be wise to respect that court decision,” said Champ, who specializes in human rights and public interest law.
Watson is an active Twitter user. The mayor, for example, regularly tweets his daily agendas and posts about developments at Ottawa City Hall and municipal issues, news and events.
Champ told Global News his own analysis of the mayor’s Twitter feed counted more than 20 tweets a day, on average, concerning public and civic issues.
In their joint notice of application, Taman, Hutt and Penner said they followed Watson on Twitter for information, announcements and the mayor’s opinions on municipal issues and policies – among other things – and have occasionally engaged in a back-and-forth with the mayor on the platform.
They allege Watson blocked them in September after they criticized something he said or prodded him about whether he would attend certain mayoral debates, respectively.
The three applicants argue Watson’s Twitter account is a “public digital space” and it’s inappropriate for the elected leader of the city to prevent them from seeing and commenting on his tweets. Doing so infringes their right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they allege.
“The reality today is that practically every elected official in Canada has a Twitter account and they’re using that medium as their primary means for communicating with constituents,” Champ said. “And for an elected official to block people from that dialogue or channel of information… it not only denies them that information, but it also denies people the opportunity to directly engage with others who are expressing their opinions on what Mayor Watson or other public officials are tweeting and that’s really important.”
Section 2(b) of the charter guarantees the right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” Taman, Hutt and Penner’s court filing argues that freedom of expression includes “the derivative right to access government information where it is necessary for meaningful expression on the functioning of government and other matters of public concern.”
In a brief statement emailed to Global News, Watson argued his Twitter account is “personal” and he has “the right not to be attacked and harassed by the same individuals on a regular basis.”
“I believe in civility in public discourse, and this type of behaviour would not be tolerated in a face-to-face debate,” the mayor wrote. “I look forward to dealing with this matter in due course.”
The applicants argue in the court documents they have always tweeted at Watson using “respectful” and “civil” language, including times when their messages were critical of the mayor. Champ said he agrees.
As for Watson’s argument that his Twitter account is a personal one, Champ asserted it doesn’t hold water.
“He’s tweeting about public business all the time,” he said.
Champ said that same argument was made and rejected in a case brought against President Donald Trump in the United States.
A U.S. District Court judge ultimately ruled it was unconstitutional for Trump to block Twitter users from his account because it violates individuals’ rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment to participate in a “public forum.” (The White House announced in June it’s appealing the decision.)
Champ added he thinks the proliferation of social media as a communication tool for politicians “is a good thing.” He said he in fact “commends” Watson for his “progressive” use of Twitter to disseminate public information and communicate with constituents.
But using social media in that way comes with a “special responsibility,” Champ argued.
Champ said the charter challenge is set to be heard in court on Jan. 31, 2019.
Taman, Hutt and Penner are not seeking damages or financial compensation in their application.
Watson is campaigning to secure a third consecutive term as mayor in Ottawa’s municipal election.