Bubble Zones for COVID Protests?
Last week, the province of Quebec passed a law making it illegal to participate in a protest relating to the COVID-19 pandemic within 50 meters of a COVID-19 testing or vaccination site, health or social services institution, or an education or child care facility. The law even forbids someone from inciting anyone to organize such a demonstration. Other provinces – such as the government of British Columbia and the official opposition and a private member in Ontario – and even the federal government are contemplating issuing similar laws.
These proposals have arisen after a number of demonstrations outside schools and hospitals took place across the country, many of which were organized by nurses to demonstrate their support for fellow health care workers’ choice not to be vaccinated. Some of these demonstrations made it difficult for ambulances and other vehicles to access the hospital. One school in British Columbia locked down after protesters entered the school.
Such protest-free “bubble zones” that regulate speech and expression in a particular area are not new. British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and Nova Scotia all have legislation that forbids pro-life expression or even offering information about abortion within certain parameters around abortion clinics, hospitals, or doctors’ offices. Politicians at the time justified the legislation as necessary to prevent extreme actions against abortion doctors or women on their way to the abortion clinic, even though harassment, assault, and other apparent concerns were already illegal. We oppose these laws as disproportionate infringements on freedom of expression, and there is currently an ongoing constitutional challenge of the Ontario law waiting for trial.
In the wake of increasing calls for protest-free zones in relation to COVID-19, here are a few suggestions for legislators, law enforcement, and protestors.
Legislators – Don’t Do It
Legislators should resist the temptation to prohibit all COVID-related protests, even if it is a politically popular choice. The right of peaceful assembly, including the right to protest, is a fundamental political freedom that should not be infringed upon lightly. Throughout Canadian history – and, indeed, Western history – protests like the Winnipeg General Strike and the On to Ottawa Trek have been pivotal avenues for social and political change.
We can make a distinction between restrictions on gatherings that target the content or subject matter of the gathering as opposed to the place or manner of the demonstration. For example, noise by-laws impact the manner in which protests are conducted regardless of the content of the message. Bubble zone laws, on the other hand, specifically target the content of the speech, making it illegal to express disapproval of abortion or COVID policy. The latter is far more troubling and constitutionally suspect.
Also, all three levels of government should not equate the actions of one person or a small minority of people to an entire crowd. In many demonstrations, some people may indeed go too far, but governments should not assume that the actions of those individuals represent the intent of everyone else. Proposing and passing legislation that prohibits the freedom of peaceful assembly and democratic expression of everyone based on the actions of a handful of an unruly few, is a grossly disproportionate infringement of fundamental rights and a heavy-handed use of the law.
Applying these criteria to the demonstrations at hand, no level of government should forbid demonstrations just because they dislike the purpose of the protest, such as protests opposing mandatory vaccinations or promoting an alternate policy approach to handling COVID. We allow for lawful dissent on all sorts of policies. This is an important aspect of the way our democracy works. Demonstrators should be constitutionally free to present their case in the public square.
Law Enforcement – Enforce the Law
Instead of legislators creating new laws which specifically outlaw protests based on the subject matter, law enforcement should endeavour to enforce the existing laws governing general conduct around protests. Remember, the Charter right is to peaceful assembly, meaning assemblies that cause havoc aren’t given constitutional protection. If an anti-vaccination protestor illegally obstructs roadways, trespasses on private property, or assaults anyone, law enforcement should use reasonable means to try to enforce the laws on the books. Much of the impetus for laws outlawing COVID protests outside of hospitals or schools is fueled by the (alleged) misconduct of some demonstrators, more so than the content of their protest. Adding more laws that ban the same activities doesn’t aid the police.
This enforcement should not be applied selectively. Whenever demonstrations cross the threshold of legality, law enforcement should attempt to restore order. Otherwise, just laws become a mockery instead of carrying the weight they justly deserve. Whether COVID protestors impede access to a hospital, teachers on a labour strike block access to a school, climate activists block bridges, or members of First Nations block railways, it is incumbent on law enforcement to endeavour to enforce existing laws before the legislature try to craft new ones.
We fully recognize that there are complex assessments that go into crowd and riot control. Throughout history, we have witnessed law enforcement use excessive force to break up rallies or detain criminals. Sometimes this squelches the problem, but sometimes it turns a disorderly protest into a violent riot. In other cases, excessive police action transforms illegitimate protestors into martyrs for their cause. There may also be times where the prudent thing for law enforcement to do is to remove a law-abiding person from a law-breaking protest or assembly. We pray that God might give law enforcement both the courage to enforce the law whenever possible, and the wisdom to know what intervention would be most effective.
Demonstrators – Be Winsome
And finally, demonstrators be winsome as you advance your cause. Political demonstrations are a key method of democratic expression, and these rallies are fueled by the zeal of the demonstrators. But if the desire is to persuade the public it is important to remember that your rally may detract from a cause because of the behaviour of some more radical protestors who attach themselves to your group. We also need to remember that we have responsibilities about how to behave as Christians that transcend the advancement of a political cause. So, here are some suggestions for how to successfully advance your cause as a Christian:
- Follow the law (unless you have a very compelling reason why an unlawful act is justified). This is our moral obligation and is also wise. Lawlessness will generally land you not only in hot water with law enforcement but also in the court of public opinion. The March for Life, for example, always puts the Ottawa police on notice, and applies for the proper permits.
- Be courteous. Beyond even the letter of the law, be courteous to fellow protestors, passers-by, and especially those whom you are protesting against. Think about things on a more personal level; do you usually convince someone by shouting in anger, or having a calm reasonable discussion with them? Again, this is not just a strategy, but a Christian obligation. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:24-25 “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” Let our demonstrations be one of reason and solidarity that depends on God to change hearts, not one of anger or slander. A demonstration that is simply a display of anger and frustration will be dismissed as just that.
- Try to be very clear and very focused with your messaging. Many of the recent protests outside hospitals were organized by nurses in support of nurses. Yet, many misunderstood this message due to the competing messages on display and a lack of understanding both within the hospital and in the general public as to the cause of the protest. Selective reporting contributed to that misunderstanding, but don’t underestimate the value of clearly communicating a concise message during the protest as well as to the local media beforehand. Letters to the editor are a great way to do that.
All of the points above can be summed up in one phrase, applicable to everyone: do the right thing with wisdom. Legislators, respect the important political and legal rights of your citizens. Law enforcement, endeavour to uphold the law. Demonstrators, model your behaviour to advance your cause.
There is no question that demonstrations are key forms of democratic, political expression that governments should be very hesitant to regulate. Protests are important in our religious history too; there is a reason why those who broke off from the Roman Catholic church were called protest-ants. But when we protest, where we protest, why we protest, and how we protest are all important considerations as we participate in democratic discourse together.