In Taylor-Baptiste v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Ontario Court of Appeal was faced with the question of whether sexist and offensive posts on a blog created by a union member to discuss workplace issues amounted to discrimination “with respect to employment” contrary to s. 5(1) of the Human Rights Code (the “Code”).
The appellant, Mariann Taylor-Baptiste and the individual respondent, Jeff Dvorak, both worked at the Toronto Jail. Ms. Taylor-Baptiste was Mr. Dvorak’s manager, and Mr. Dvorak was the president of the jail’s local branch of the respondent union, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (“OPSEU”). Mr. Dvorak operated a blog about union matters. During a period of labour unrest in early 2009, Mr. Dvorak authored a blog post, and approved the posting of a comment written by another worker, that accused Ms. Taylor-Baptiste of, among other things, nepotism (suggesting she only obtained her position because of her relationship with her boyfriend) and incompetence. Ms. Taylor-Baptiste brought an application to the Human Rights Tribunal (the “Tribunal”), alleging discrimination “with respect to employment” contrary to s. 5(1) of the Code and harassment “in the workplace” contrary to s. 5(2) of the Code.
The Tribunal found that although postings on blogs can form part of or an extension of the workplace and the postings were sexist and offensive, these particular blog posts did not amount to harassment “in the workplace” contrary to s. 5(2) of the Code. This finding was not challenged on appeal to the Court of Appeal. With respect to the allegation of discrimination “with respect to employment”, the Tribunal considered that the comments were made by Mr. Dvorak “in the course of his duties as a … union president”, and therefore his comments enjoyed the protection of the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association guaranteed by ss. 2(b) and (d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom (the “Charter”). As a result, the Tribunal found that the blog posts did not contravene either section of the Code. At the request of Ms. Taylor-Baptiste, the Tribunal reconsidered its decision and upheld the initial decision.
The Divisional Court dismissed Ms. Taylor-Baptiste’s application for judicial review, holding that the Tribunal’s decision was reasonable.
Ms. Taylor-Baptiste appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal considered whether the Divisional Court properly applied the reasonableness standard to the Tribunal’s decision that the blog posts did not infringe her right to equal treatment “with respect to employment” without discrimination under s. 5(1) of the Code.
The Court of Appeal found that the Tribunal was entitled to take into account Charter values within its scope of expertise, and that interpreting the meaning of the words “with respect to employment” in s. 5(1) of the Code fell within the very core of the Tribunal’s expertise. The Court of Appeal also found that the Tribunal properly identified freedom of expression and freedom of association as relevant Charter rights in regard to the circumstances of this case. Section 2(b) of the Charter (freedom of expression) protects a broad range of expressive activity, including “distasteful” expression, so long as it does not reach the point of violent expression or is not, for example, hate speech. Freedom of association, on the other hand, was relevant because the blog posts dealt with union-management relations and were related to union issues, notwithstanding the sexist language. [In fact, the Supreme Court has held that expressive activity in the labour context is directly related to the Charter-protected right of workers to associate to further workplace goals under s. 2(d) of the Charter.]
The Court of Appeal then considered whether the Tribunal properly balanced the relevant Charter values with the objective of the Code. The Court of Appeal found that the Tribunal appropriately balanced the statutory objective of protecting of Ms. Taylor-Baptiste from a poisoned work environment against the Charter rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association. Based on the foregoing reasons, the Court of Appeal concluded that the Tribunal’s decision was reasonable, and upheld the dismissal of Ms. Taylor-Baptiste’s Application.
The implications of this decision remain to be seen, but it is important to note that the Court of Appeal was careful to state that its decision applied only to the facts at hand, and that it was not creating a “blanket exemption” protecting all forms of union speech from the requirements of s. 5 of the Code.
Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario: Taylor-Baptiste v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 2012 HRTO 1393 (CanLII).
Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (Reconsideration Decision): Taylor-Baptiste v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 2013 HRTO 180 (CanLII).
Divisional Court: Taylor-Baptiste v. O.P.S.E.U., 2014 ONSC 2169 (CanLII).
Court of Appeal: Taylor-Baptiste v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 2015 ONCA 495 (CanLII).
This article originally appeared on the Dentons blog, employmentandlabour.com.