BCCLA urges rejection of bill that will make wearing masks at some protests a crime

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VANCOUVER – The BC Civil Liberties Association will address a Senate committee today to argue against the adoption of Bill C-309. Bill C-309 would make it a criminal offence to wear a mask or disguise to conceal one’s identity if a public gathering is declared by the authorities to be a “riot” or an “unlawful assembly”.

The BCCLA argued that Bill C-309 threatens the constitutionally-protected freedoms of expression and association by placing a chill on those who may wish to wear masks at popular protests and demonstrations. The rights watchdog stated that there are legitimate reasons for wearing masks that are connected to the fundamental right to freely express one’s opinions.

“Costumes and masks are lawful and they can be a powerful aid to unpopular speech,” said Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BCCLA. “They can help foster the uninhibited expression of political views. The anonymity of a mask can protect people who are voicing their political opinions from punishment or reprisal by government, employers, family and others. In some cases the masks and costumes themselves may be a political message, such as wearing a polar bear suit to a climate change rally.”

The BCCLA pointed out that the new law would also threaten the presumption of innocence, and potentially expose people to criminal penalties in an arbitrary way when they have no intention or knowledge that they are committing an offence. For example, the Association noted that in a large protest such as those recently seen in Montreal, police might declare the gathering illegal if a handful of people blocks away smashed a window, without hundreds or thousands of protesters realizing it. This would, the BCCLA stated, mean that anybody in that crowd wearing a costume or a mask would instantly, and unknowingly, have their lawful protest turned into a crime punishable by a prison term.

Paterson added: “It is unacceptable that people who are exercising their constitutional freedom of expression could be instantly and arbitrarily criminalized. This Bill threatens the freedom of expression that lies at the core of our democracy. Every individual already has a duty to identify him or herself if they are being arrested by police for suspected criminal conduct. It is unnecessary to make it an automatic criminal offence to have a costume on if a protest is declared to be an illegal gathering or riot by police.”

Paul Champ, a lawyer who frequently acts on behalf of the BCCLA, represented the Association at the Senate Committee. He also testified on this bill to a House of Commons committee in 2012. After hearing testimony from many groups concerned about the civil rights implications of the bill, the bill was actually amended to increase the maximum jail term from 5 to 10 years.