MONTREAL - There were warnings Friday from Quebec's legal community that the government's strict legislation aimed at ending the student crisis has gone too far.
One law professor even compared the controversial Bill 78 to the now-defunct War Measures Act. Other observers, meanwhile, supported the law as a way to bring calm after months of unrest.
The emergency legislation lays out stern regulations governing demonstrations and contains provisions for heavy fines for students and their federations.
Lucie Lemonde, a law professor at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, said Friday that she was stunned by how far the bill reaches.
"It's the worst law that I've ever seen, except for the War Measures Act," said Lemonde, referring to the notorious federal law imposed in Quebec during the 1970 FLQ crisis.
"We knew something was coming, but I didn't think they would use it to change the rules of the game in terms of the rights to demonstrate."
The legislation, set to expire after a year, is designed to deal with an immediate problem.
Tens of thousands of Quebec students have been on strike for more than three months to oppose the government's plan to hike tuition fees. Some demonstrations have led to vandalism and violent exchanges with riot police, and some students have been blocked while attempting to return to class.
While Lemonde doesn't support the tuition increases, she has found herself stuck in the middle of the occasionally aggressive dispute.
She was forced to cancel a class Wednesday when dozens of chanting, masked protesters stormed into her UQAM classroom. The school invasion, which made international headlines, left her shaken up.
Still, Lemonde said Bill 78 attacks an individual's rights to freedom of expression, association and conscience.
Other experts also questioned the bill's legality Friday.
Louis Masson, head of the provincial bar association, said in a statement that the bill violates constitutional rights. However, there were grumblings from some members of the bar that not all Quebec lawyers are quite that opposed to the law.
One Quebec lawyer said in an email to The Canadian Press that some members of the association were upset that Masson spoke on their behalf.
Also Pierre Marc Johnson, a former Parti Quebecois premier, criticized an earlier statement by the association recommending mediation between the government and students.
In a letter published Friday in Montreal newspaper La Presse, Johnson urged the government to have the courage to take a strong stand to protect the democratic rights of law-abiding citizens. Johnson, a lawyer, warned against "improvised approaches."
Bill 78 quickly earned praise Friday from some pro-business institutions.
Michel Leblanc, president and chief executive of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, welcomed it as a way to protect downtown businesses. Many have complained that they are suffering because of the frequent demonstrations.
Leblanc noted that fewer people have been heading to stores and restaurants in the business district since the protests started.
"The objective was to pause the troubles," he said of the bill in an interview.
"It was important to find a way to calm the city."
Leblanc also hoped the legislation would enable students who want to complete their semester to do so.
The director of an association that represents 8,000 businesses in downtown Montreal was pleased with Bill 78, but wondered what took so long for the Charest government to act.
Andre Poulin of Destination Centre-Ville said business owners have been "taken hostage" by protesters for more than three months.
"It makes no sense to let something go for that long," said Poulin. "The impact has been enormous."
But even some people who disagree with the student strike think Bill 78's measures are too repressive.
Celina Toia, a first-year UQAM law student, was physically shaken up by a protester when they rushed into her school Wednesday to disrupt the classes.
The invaders also hurled insults at her in an incident she described as "completely shocking."
While Toia believes protesters have no right acting aggressively and blocking others from going to class, she thinks the government has come down too hard on their rights.
"It goes against the principles that I abide by, which is the supremacy of law," said Toia, who doesn't support the tuition increases, either.
"Because if I were to accept this piece of legislation, I'm also denying a democratic right to someone else."
Under the Constitution's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone has the right to free expression and peaceful assembly — within reasonable limits prescribed by law.
Some are arguing that Bill 78 doesn't pass the test.
The law lays out strict regulations governing demonstrations, including having to give eight hours' notice for details such as the itinerary, the duration and the time at which they are being held.
Simply offering encouragement for someone to protest at a school — either tacitly or otherwise — is subject to punishment.
Remarks from the education minister fuelled some of the confusion about the bill's potential reach.
Michelle Courchesne, less than a week in her new position, raised more than a few eyebrows by mentioning that tweets from the social network website Twitter could also be considered as encouragement to protest.
When asked to clarify, she said she would leave it up the police's discretion to deem what was within the limits of the law. It remains unknown whether "re-tweeting" a potentially illegal message could also land others in hot water.
Toia and Lemonde both predicted the law will heighten tensions and confuse people — students and teachers.
Lemonde said some faculty members are now wondering whether it's still safe to wear red squares pinned to their clothes — a symbol of support for the anti-tuition-increase movement.
"I think people are scared," she said.
"They say, 'Just by wearing the red square, could I be charged?' "
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