Some time on Monday, Aug 18, 2014, the popular and often politically charged and controversial blog of Fredericton’s Charles LeBlanc was shut down. The blog is probably best known for LeBlanc’s hounding of politicians and police over their statements, decisions and actions.
The removal of the blog was the result of City of Fredericton Chief Administrative Officer Chris MacPherson contacting Google to have the blog removed because it allegedly contained “inaccurate and hurtful content about Fredericton police,” as reported by CBC. At least that is the summary reason that the City of Fredericton communicated to the media in the days following.
In the interview From the Margins did with LeBlanc, which follows this writing, he gives background to the shut down. As well, he gives a message of warning to other bloggers and media activists. Where is the line being drawn around freedom of expression?
As the interview reveals, the efforts of the City of Fredericton and the Fredericton Police Force (FPF) to put LeBlanc into legal trouble for the content of his blog – if not to restrict or end it – date back years.
In January 2012, LeBlanc’s computer was seized and he was arrested, officially as part of a FPF investigation into allegedly libelous content about a member of the FPF. The officer in question complained months earlier regarding LeBlanc’s statements about him. LeBlanc alleged inappropriate contact during his arrest in the summer of 2011 by the officer – for a bylaw infraction involving biking without a helmet on a sidewalk – and wondered out loud, in a number of blog posts, what other questionable behaviours the officer might engage in.
When his apartment was invaded by police during the investigation, LeBlanc was led to the impression that they were after something other than libelous information about a police officer. He thought they were conducting a search for information regarding child sexual exploitation. He was outraged. In fact, as part of their investigation, when the FPF tried to obtain information about LeBlanc from his Internet Service Provider (ISP), they used a form designed for investigations of child sexual exploitation, which the FPF tried to modify into a form for obtaining libelous information. The ISP treated it, perhaps expectantly from the FPF’s point of view, as a query for child sexual exploitation specifically. Both the invasiveness of the house search together with the convoluted nature of the FPF’s query to the ISP lends credibility to the idea that the FPF were indeed fishing for more incriminating information to use against LeBlanc, which they did not find. This questionable procedure is a point that was stressed by former New Brunswick Ombusdsman Bernard Richard in his December 2012 independent review of the FPF’s conduct in their investigation of LeBlanc:
“This egregious error (use of the child sexual exploitation form) gives credence to those who see this part of the investigation as an attempt to find something more serious to be used against Mr. LeBlanc. Obviously, several members of the FPF were questioned about the use of this form. The response provided was that it was a ‘poor cut and paste job.’ But, with respect, it is more than that given that the use of the form is exclusive to child sexual exploitation offences and should only be used for that purpose.”
The police followed up their arrest of LeBlanc and seizure of his computer with a charge for criminal libel under the controversial Section 301 of the Criminal Code of Canada for his aforementioned comments about the member of the FPF. Section 301 makes it an indictable offence to publish a defamatory libel regardless of whether the publisher knows of the falsity of the statement.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), a not-for-profit public interest advocacy organization that has existed since 1964 to promote and defend civil liberties in Canada, learned about LeBlanc’s case not long after the arrest and equipment seizure occurred. On February 1, 2012, they responded with concern in a letter to then Fredericton Police Chief Barry McKnight. Part of their concern was the dubious validity of the charge.
“In our view, s. 301 cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny and it is problematic that charges under this section continue to be laid. This offence places severe restrictions on the fundamental freedom of expression of all Canadians and can have the result of chilling expression on important issues of public interest.”
The CCLA’s position, echoed by a number of lawyers, was validated in May 2012 by the Attorney General of New Brunswick, who decided not to proceed with charges, finding it highly unlikely that any court in the province would find the Criminal Code section constitutional.
Returning to the present, when the City of Fredericton wrote to Google, asking them to take down LeBlanc’s blog due to “inaccurate and hurtful content about Fredericton police”, they were conveniently getting around constitutional standards of freedom of expression. Instead of again going after LeBlanc directly, the City of Fredericton went around him on this occasion, to the domain source of his the blog, owned by Google. It was enough for the City of Fredericton to make a formal request to to Google to have the blog taken down for the reasons given. Other bloggers and alternative media may want to take note.
As for LeBlanc’s blogging, a new site has gone up, but the old content collected over the years is gone.