Watch your mouth!

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve seen a young male wear a t-shirt with an inappropriate or adult-themed expression or joke written on it.

If you are prude, you probably wondered, “How is that person allowed to wear that, legally?”

Or maybe you are like me and thought, “That t-shirt is inappropriate, but it shouldn’t be illegal.”

Or maybe you just wondered, “How far can we go in our ‘freedom of expression’?” Well, if you thought this, you’re in luck: that is the topic of this week’s column.

Section 2(b) of the Charter allows for freedom of expression. But, what’s an “expression”? Well, for clarity, an expression is any means of communication that has content and expresses a meaning.

I hope that you don’t think there should be a bunch of limits on what we can say. That would be stupid (and very un-Canadian).

Thankfully, we are allowed to say and express ourselves however we want! It’s a Canadian value that we should be very proud of (and we should work hard to preserve). We can say or write anything! (…almost).

Obviously, there are limits... So, what are those limits?

Well, this part of the law is technical and complicated. Reason: we have to be careful with limiting our freedom of expression. It’s a slippery slope to take away someone’s right to express themselves.

But, without getting too technical, here is the basic law: expressions that are not allowed (i.e. against the law) are those that are really obscene or promote hatred or are threatening to someone. Here are a few examples…

Consider this case: R. v. Keegstra, [1990] 3 SCR 697. In this case, Mr. Keegstra was an Alberta high school social studies teacher. He was an idiot. He taught his students that Jews are “treacherous”, “sadistic”, “money-loving”, and “child killers”. He said a pile of other stupid things, too. Thankfully, he was charged with the Criminal Code offence of promoting hatred against a group of people (see section 319(2)).

In the case, Mr. Keegstra argued that he was allowed to make these statements because he had ‘freedom of expression’. That argument failed and Mr. Keegstra was criminally convicted of promoting hatred.

It is also illegal to make threatening comments to someone. This is referred to as ‘uttering threats’. See section 264.1 of the Criminal Code. Basically, this section makes it illegal to tell someone that you are going to hurt them or their property. We’ve all heard these sorts of comments made, whether in a pub or in a school. They are illegal…don’t say them.

Here’s the bottom-line: next time you see a young man wearing a t-shirt with a lame joke written on it, be happy that you live in Canada (and no one is telling him to take it off).

**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.

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About the Author

Jeff Zilkowsky is a lawyer practicing at MacLean Law in the Lower Mainland and in Kelowna, and focuses his practice on family law and litigation.  

In his column, Jeff provides information about current legal events or points of interest or concern relating to the law. 

The information contained in Jeff’s column should not be used or relied upon as legal advice.

Comments are always appreciated and encouraged, so don’t hesitate to email Jeff at [email protected]

Visit Jeff’s website at www.jeffzilkowsky.com or visit the website of MacLean Law.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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