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Town employees did not have a reasonable basis to fear violence from protester: “violence is not the mere absence of civility”, appeal court states

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“The Town employees, both junior and senior, were alarmed, but they were alarmed too easily”, the Ontario Court of Appeal has stated, in deciding that a protester outside of a town council meeting did not engage in “violence”.  The decision shows that employees’ subjective fear of bullying or violence are not always legally justified.

The man was protesting the town council’s intention to permit a medical marijuana facility to be built across the street from his home. Several town staff members “expressed fear for their safety”. The town’s interim Chief Administrative Officer, whose duties included the obligation under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to maintain a workplace free from harassment or violence, issued a trespass notice and the police arrested the protester and placed him in handcuffs when he refused to leave.  The trespass notice stated that the protester was not to enter three town properties for a year.  The protester brought a court application challenging the validity of the trespass notice.  He lost at the lower court, but won at the Court of Appeal.

The appeal court decided that the protester had not engaged in violence.  Although town employees were frightened and felt that the protester was “bullying them”, the evidence did not disclose any reasonable basis for their fear.  The court stated, “A protest does not cease to be peaceful simply because protesters are loud and angry”.  Here, there was no evidence that the protester physically obstructed anyone, or otherwise impaired anyone’s ability to use public space.  He paced back and forth with a megaphone.  Those were not “erratic” actions. The court stated, “Violence is not the mere absence of civility.”

The court noted the insufficient basis for the town employees’ fear of violence:

“The basis for [the town employees’] fear appears to be (1) one prior interaction in which Mr. Bracken was loud and “intimidating”, but in which he was never violent or threatening; (2) Mr. Bracken’s videotaping of a Council meeting; (3) Mr. Bracken’s videos posted to Youtube, in which he is said to chase people down and question them; (4) his actions on the day of his protest. If anyone felt intimidated by him, other than Town employees who had never before witnessed a protest and doubted that protests in front of Town Hall were lawful, it was not because he was threatening anyone.”

The court held that the town’s Workplace Violence Prevention Policy did not give the town authority to issue the trespass notice to the protester.  The court stated, “Although the OHSA imposes a duty on the Town to take reasonable precautions to protect workers, it does not confer any powers on the Town regarding the activities of someone who is not a co-worker . . .”  Further, the town staff could have talked to the protester and cautioned him about his activities, but they did not do so.  The trespass notice violated the protester’s right, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to freedom of expression.

According to the appeal court, “The statutory obligation to promote workplace safety, and the ‘safe space’ policies enacted pursuant to them, cannot be used to swallow whole Charter rights.”

In the end, the appeal court set aside the trespass notice and awarded the protester $4,000.00 for his costs of the appeal, and additional costs for the lower court proceeding.

Bracken v. Fort Erie (Town), 2017 ONCA 668 (CanLII)