All Bets Are Off: Free Expression Trumps Privacy in Supreme Court Picketing Case

When we think of picket lines, we don’t usually think of photographs and video surveillance, but these can be essential weapons on both sides of a labour dispute. In a decision released last month, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the importance of photo and video surveillance on picket lines – and for unions, at least, made it a constitutional right.

All Bets Are Off

The dispute in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401, 2013 SCC 62 began when several individuals discovered that they had been photographed and videotaped when they crossed a picket line to get to a casino. One of the individuals was the Vice-President of the casino, whose photo was taken by his striking employees and then printed on various union posters, newsletters and leaflets with “captions intended to be humorous.”

(The Supreme Court doesn’t tell us what those captions were, but I like to imagine that they were casino- and strike-related puns – “cash out or all bets are off,” “if you want a full house you’d better up the ante,” “give management the royal flush,” that sort of thing. They were probably much more banal than that, but a boy can dream.)

Anyway, the individuals complained to the Alberta Privacy Commissioner, who administers a law called the Personal Information Protection Act (“PIPA”). PIPA, like similar legislation in B.C., Quebec and the federal jurisdiction, is meant to protect privacy in an age of computers and smartphones, but the Alberta version is particularly broad. Subject to some exceptions and exemptions, PIPA prevents the collection, use and disclosure of any information about an identifiable person, by any organization, for almost any purpose. Videotaping and photographing people who try to cross a picket line is, according to the Privacy Commissioner, right out.

The union challenged the Privacy Commissioner’s decision before the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench on the basis that PIPA was unconstitutional, because it interfered with the union’s freedom of expression. That was the dispute that worked its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Express Picketing

The first question the Supreme Court had to answer was whether the union’s activities were protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. I found it interesting that all of the parties conceded this. It’s not quite as clear to me.

Obviously, picketing is a form of expression. One of the most important purposes of picketing is to raise public awareness of the issues underlying a strike. Another is to convince the public to support the strike and by getting their goods and services elsewhere. These are fundamental parts of free expression. What about taking somebody else’s picture, though? Certainly the uses that the union made of the Vice-President’s photo were expressive, since it became part of the union’s newsletters and leaflets. But why should taking the photo, in and of itself, be protected under freedom of expression? Why should the union have a constitutional right to take photos of the other two complainants, which it apparently never used?

The Supreme Court’s answer was that one of primary purposes in taking the photos and videos was to persuade people not to cross the picket line. Since it was meant to persuade, it was expressive activity. The Supreme Court seems to be saying that since picketing itself is expressive, tactics that make the picket line more effective – by deterring people from crossing it – will also be expressive.

I have to admit I have an issue with that reasoning. I would have thought that the activity itself, taking the photograph or video, would need to be expressive in order to be protected. At least it would need to be essential to expressive activity like picketing, not just something that makes picketing more effective. But since none of the parties disputed it, and the Supreme Court accepted it, let’s move on.

A Fine Balance

The fundamental question that the Court grappled with was how to balance the picketers’ right to free expression against the privacy rights of individuals who crossed the picket line. The Court recognized the important benefits of PIPA, but ultimately found that they were trumped by free expression.

The Court seems to have focused on just how extremely broad PIPA is in general, rather than on the narrow issue of photographing and videotaping. “What is of the utmost significance in our view,” the Court found, “is that PIPA prohibits the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information for many legitimate, expressive purposes related to labour relations.” No doubt that is true. PIPA would have prohibited not just the collection of people’s images (i.e. the taking of photographs and videos), but also their use in ways that are both expressive and important to picketing: among other things, the newsletters and leaflets already discussed; raising awareness of the picketing online; and persuading police, the public, and if necessary the courts that no improper behaviour took place.

The Court, however, keeps going back to the importance to a picket line of persuading people not to cross it. That is where I still find the decision a bit problematic. Not that I am against picketing – it’s essential to our labour law system – and not that I am against unions trying to persuade people not to cross a picket line, which is important to their ability to mount an effective strike. But here we are weighing other rights in the balance. If privacy violations were necessary in order for unions to picket at all, that would be one thing, but it’s quite different to say that privacy rights should be outweighed merely because the union wishes to use a particular tactic that helps to make picketing somewhat more effective.

What About Employers?

The fact is, employers use picket line surveillance far more often than unions do. The primary purposes on the employer side are to deter violence and property damage and to collect evidence that can be used in legal proceedings, such as injunction proceedings to stop or limit picketing. Despite the pro-surveillance outcome of the case, though, employers will not have much to get excited about. Since the Supreme Court’s main concern was the importance of photographs and videotapes to picketing, the decision is unlikely to assist employers who wish to photograph and videotape picket lines in order to limit picketing.

The Bottom Line

As much as I’ve criticized the Court’s decision here, I actually believe that unions and employers should be permitted to photograph and videotape picket lines. Picket lines are tense, emotions run high, and it is important for both parties to be able to collect the best evidence of what has happened there in the event of a legal challenge. People who march on a picket line, let alone people who cross one, should know that they are in a public place where their privacy can’t be guaranteed. Furthermore, a lot of the union’s reasons for taking photos and videos, which the Supreme Court summarized, are legitimate and probably do make good labour relations sense.

What I’m not certain about is whether this should be a constitutional right, as the Supreme Court found. I’m not certain that a government that chooses for policy reasons to put privacy rights first in this situation should be unable to do so, even if it’s not the policy choice I would personally make.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court struck down PIPA but allowed it to remain in force for 12 months to give the Alberta government an opportunity to amend it. Hopefully, the government will be able to strike an appropriate balance between privacy, labour rights and freedom of expression going forward.

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