HALIFAX — In a case one civil libertarian warns could set a "very chilling precedent," a Nova Scotia man will face trial for swearing in public.
Joseph Currie was arrested during a Halifax protest against the Conservatives' anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, last year, and charged with "unlawfully (causing) a disturbance ... by swearing."
The 26-year-old's lawyer said his client, who is alleged to have shouted obscenities into a megaphone, has no criminal record and will defend his "right to criticize the government publicly."
"The only way a message gets out is if concerns are broadcast," Gordon Allen said. "Some people in public wouldn't want to hear that or pay attention. They just want to go about their day, but that's the nature of democracy."
Currie is due to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing next Wednesday and his trial is set to begin on Oct. 6.
"Some people in public wouldn't want to hear that or pay attention. They just want to go about their day, but that's the nature of democracy."
According to police reports, Currie was one of 200 protesters in the Spring Garden Road area last June. Two other protesters were arrested for blocking traffic by sitting on a crosswalk, but police only laid charges against Currie.
A video of the arrest on YouTube shows a handcuffed Currie telling police he "won't swear again" as an officer takes off the activist's Guy Fawkes mask and puts him in the back of his car. Fellow protesters heckle the officer, who tells them he received "numerous" complaints about the disturbance.
Allen said the use of foul language has become so commonplace that in some ways the F-word was an "appropriate" expression of his client's contempt for the former Harper government's policy.
"He could have said, 'Golly, darn it! Gee, don't like the government!' And people would think, OK, he's channelling Ned Flanders,'' he said. "When you hear this, it's the type of expression that makes people pay attention and that's the point of protest."
Allen cited the long history of artists using swear words to voice political discontent, including songs by The Who, Rage Against the Machine, and N.W.A.
"He could have said, 'Golly, darn it! Gee, don't like the government!'"
Josh Paterson of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who himself participated in protests against Bill C-51, said he worries restricting what people can and cannot say during political speech could set a "very chilling precedent."
"If you feel strongly about something and those kind of words are the ones that suit your sentiment then you should be free to use them,'' said the lawyer and executive director of the civil liberties organization. "We don't have the criminal law to guard against people being offended by the use of indelicate language."
Charge 'simply makes no sense'
Without knowing the ins and outs of Currie's case, Paterson said this kind of a charge "simply makes no sense."
"If what we've read about what happened is true ... that would then call into question the ability of Canadians right across the country to express themselves politically in public," he said.
Halifax police Staff Sgt. Mark Hobeck would not comment on the specifics of the case, but said their response to a profanity-laden protest would depend on where it is, who is being affected, and if there are complaints.
As public safety unit commander, Hobeck said his team ensures protesters have the right to express themselves. His team was not at the Bill C-51 protest, but said the patrol officers made a "discretionary decision" based on the complaints they were receiving.
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