Gerry Rogers and freedom of expression

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By Michael Karanicolas

In November 2012, 21-year-old Renu Srinivasan was arrested in Mumbai, India. Her crime was that she “liked” a friend’s comment on Facebook which questioned the public funeral arrangements being made for a prominent politician.

The case garnered significant global attention, where the Indian authorities were condemned for their abuse of power and their misunderstanding of the nature of online speech. Ms. Srinivasan’s arrest did indeed represent a gross violation of the right to freedom of expression.

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador should, however, think twice before concluding that this sort of misunderstanding of the Internet is limited to the developing world.

On April 16, MHA Gerry Rogers was thrown out of Newfoundland’s House of Assembly after being found in contempt because a Facebook page that she was subscribed to contained very offensive statements against Premier Kathy Dunderdale.

Rogers, for her part, denies having joined the group (saying, instead, that she had been added by someone else, which is possible with Facebook pages). She therefore refused to apologize, leading to her expulsion from the House.

In some ways, she might have been lucky: Newfoundland’s House of Assembly Act, which she was accused of breaching, allows for fines and, in lieu of payment, up to three months’ imprisonment.

Regardless of whether Rogers joined the group voluntarily, the case raises serious issues from a freedom of expression perspective.

Rogers was condemned based on a very tangential connection to the offensive statements. As anyone even vaguely familiar with the freewheeling world of online debate can attest, joining a particular discussion group or Facebook page is in no way an endorsement of every statement made on it.

To suggest otherwise is a bit like claiming that publishing a statement, such as this in a newspaper, should open one up to liability for any defamatory statement printed by that newspaper. Or even to transfer liability to everyone who receives the newspaper, because an important function of joining online groups is to remain informed about what is happening around us.

Both functions of online groups — to enable members to keep informed about events and to participate in spreading one’s own thoughts — are of the greatest importance for politicians, and their ability to discharge their democratic responsibilities in the modern world.

Rogers’ expulsion will almost certainly exert a chilling effect on politicians’ willingness to use the powerful medium of the Internet to engage with their constituents, participate in the diverse groups that it brings together and generally take advantage of the enormous grass-roots democratic benefits that it engenders.

More broadly, this decision exposes serious problems with the institution of contempt of parliament. In calling for Rogers’ suspension, Government House Leader Darin King cited the House of Assembly Act, which highlights members’ right to be free from “obstruction, interference, intimidation and molestation.”

Ironically, this is precisely what Rogers suffered (i.e. interference with her legitimate outreach activities).

From a freedom of expression perspective, these terms could potentially be used to penalize a vast array of perfectly legitimate political speech. Indeed, this danger can be found within King’s address itself, which equates recent protests in Great Britain by opponents of Margaret Thatcher to the Boston bombings and “the bullying and intimidation and mass murders that we have seen down in the United States over the last number of years.” Rogers’ expulsion, on fuzzy grounds and based on conduct with only a very tenuous link to her, is an excellent illustration of this.

There are also serious procedural problems in the way contempt of parliament is applied, largely at the discretion of the Speaker.

In this sense, it is analogous to contempt of court rules, which have traditionally allowed a judge to try contempt cases immediately in his or her own court. In both circumstances, certain powers are necessary to ensure the orderly conduct of the respective proceedings.

However, contempt of court powers have led to abuses and more progressive jurisdictions, such as South Africa, have started to develop more protective procedural rules.

I believe that the Speaker of the Newfoundland House of Assembly should provide appropriate redress to Rogers and refrain from applying contempt powers in similar cases in future. The Newfoundland House of Assembly — but also other legislatures in Canada for similar rules exist in all of them — should review their contempt of parliament rules with a view to bringing them into line with standards of respect for freedom of expression.

Michael Karanicolas is legal officer of the

Centre for Law and Democracy.

Organizations: Newfoundland House of Assembly, Government House

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Mumbai, India Great Britain Boston United States South Africa Canada

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Recent comments

  • Ron Tizzard
    April 22, 2013 - 07:31

    For God Almighty's sake people grow up! All this time wasted 'over what'! Gerry Rogers should not have been removed from the HOA; if the Premier's sensitivity levels are set too high, on any given day, she should go speak with her Psychiatrst, take time off or find a new job. Don't be so childish, Premier, and get back to work. Gerry Rogers is a member of the Opposition, that's her job! I would suggest that you visit a Psychiatrist and have your own sensitivity levels adjusted! SHAME, SHAME,SHAME.

  • Barry
    April 21, 2013 - 17:15

    I guess we just have to wait for a shot to be fired! Then all hell will break loose and people will cry 'oh we didn't know this would happen'!! Well let me tell you...we live in a society where this certainly can happen. PS...there is more than one party here playing politics. Gerry is acting like the innocent person here. Wonder what she would say if one of the MHA's were on sites condemning gays and trans genders?? While i certainly dont agree with the way the government handled this issue, the message should have been the threats. But then the media did a pretty good job of praising up Gerry too. Lets see a little more of the pouting! And i could care less who wins the election, I just hate seeing one party get pounded on! Guess that's what happens when your in govèrnment for 10 years. The group who probably looks good in all of this are the Liberals in that they stayed out of it altogether.

  • Anon
    April 21, 2013 - 13:43

    And ya know what? Someone in Eastern Health should be shot for those botched test results! Oh wait... we're forgetting about that now?

  • D Moore
    April 21, 2013 - 12:18

    The comment is concerning and the individual who made them no doubt was looked into by police. The group that he used to make the comment in is NOT about bringing threats or harm to anybody. It is about asking for a new government because they have lost faith in this one, That is the right of every person in a democracy to speak. To accuse the whole group of endorsing this comment is either very silly or very irresponsible. That individual may have belonged to other groups too, should all of them be tarred with the same brush? If we find where the man lives, should we assume that every person in his family is a threat? Every person on his street? Every person from his home town? If you go to a hockey game, and one person throws something on the ice, do they kick out the entire section? Is the assumption that the people siting nearby are also up to no good? Of course not! To suggest that would be nonsense. The big concern here is that the Justice Minister (& friends) have slurred the reputation of an innocent bystander. They have also accused that the entire group in which the comment was made is comprised of dangerous people with harmful intent. Presumably, people who share activities of any kind are equally dangerous? The premier's logic is inescapable, if guilt by association on this level is to be used - all people of the Province can not be trusted. That says an awful lot about her opinion of democratic rights and freedom of assembly. And it suggests to me that perhaps her perception of the world is the real problem.

  • Ray
    April 21, 2013 - 09:16

    Peggy, you said "She was in a group that allowed death threats." this couldn't be further from the truth. This group did NOT allow death threats, that 100% not true. Example, If I were a business owner, and a vandal with a can of spray paint came along one night and spraypainted the same remarks on the wall of the side of my building, does that mean that as a business owner I endorse those remarks spraypainted on my wall? and further does that mean that anyone who somes into my business endorses those remarks? aka Gerry Rogers? what you said was totally not true, I might add that as soon as those remarks were made they were taken down and the member deleted from the group. the group acted with due diligence and correctly in removing those remarks. Gerry Rogers did nothing, and let me repeat, NOTHING wrong, weather or not she was added makes no difference, if she choses to remain part of the group makes no difference, its HER choice to remain and its her choice alone.

  • Sam
    April 20, 2013 - 11:55

    The message in all of this should have been the seriousness of the threats that were made! I get a little uneasy when I see someone write 'she should be JFK'd' or 'someone's house should be burned'. This is serious stuff folks...this is what the focus should be in all this Facebook talk. I was never comfortable with all this social media stuff...this past week only makes me more weary!

    • Frank
      April 20, 2013 - 13:03

      To RIchard: 1) Fallacy: suggestion that Gerry Rogers wanted to be associated with this group. 2) Fallacy: suggestion that this group condones ways to murder someone 3) Fallacy: suggestion that this event is analogous with events in Boston or elsewhere. A guide to logical fallacies:

    • coco
      April 20, 2013 - 14:25

      Yet you post to social media yourself? I have no idea what language you are speaking. Is that rap speak or something? Our government is 13 going on 60.

    • Charlie
      April 20, 2013 - 15:24

      The message in all of this is that the government has made complete fools of themselves. It should never have been brought up in the HOA. They had no right to ask Gerry Rogers for an apology. If they were so concerned with threats they should have quietly gone to the police. Instead they tried to make a Gerry Rogers look bad. It back fired on them. They may be able to tell people what to do in their personal lives but, the voters see through all these antics. Government was deflecting what is really important. The budget. It's basic political science 1000. They failed miserably!!!

  • Sean
    April 20, 2013 - 11:37

    Peggy, you must be affiliated with Dunderdale somehow, to make such remarks. If what you say is true against Rogers, then couldn't the same be said for Dunderdale and her sex site visits on Twitter. Also did you see the CBC report on what the PC MHA's are endorsing on Facebook, like illegal fighting, petitions against their own party's (Dunderdale's) cuts, etc... The people of this province need to stand up and stop this Dunderdale dictatorship. It is sickening to see how fast this government has messed this province up so quickly. If this government gives the $90 million to the paper mill in Corner Brook, kiss it goodbye because we will never see it again. What a slap in the face to everyone in this province, especially those that lost their jobs and affected by all the cuts in services. Way to MIS-REPRESENT the people of NL and Lab, Dunderdale. You and your hench-men only represent yourselves!!!! Disgusting. She will most certainly go down as the worst Premier in the history of this province.

    • Ben
      April 20, 2013 - 13:18

      Sean...I wonder what Rogers would have said if another MHA was involved in a site on FB where someone made threats against Lesbians , gays, or transgendered? And then when that MHA realized they were on that site, they decided to stay. I can tell you Rogers would be up in arms. It's one thing to say your not involved with those statements, it's another to stay associated with the site. I am affiliated with no party...I actually think both the PC's & the NDP were playing politics with the events this week. While I don't agree with everything this government does, what government did everyone agree with everything on? I do however, think we live in the best place in the world. You should really visit a place with no democracy.

    April 20, 2013 - 11:29

    How ironic that the general public should enjoy greater charter protections in this province than their elected representatives in the people's assembly. Under the charter, opinion, expression and assembly are fundamental freedoms. That means every citizen has the right to be a member of any organization unless it has been legally declared a criminal or terrorist organization. Associating with others in a groups does not mean that we are responsible for the group as a whole or for the actions of other members of that group. We live in a society that values individual rights and demands individual responsibility - a society in which guilt by association does not exist. What we are witnessing is an abuse of those democratic principles by the very legislative structure entrusted to protect them. It is not the first example of such behaviour under this particular government and probably won't be the last. It emulates the behaviour of a government in Ottawa that has repeatedly violated our national democratic institutions. The Harper government - like the Dunderdale government - will ultimately pay a price for those violations. Justin Trudeau has been criticized for a lack of specificity in his platform, but to be fair he has spoken repeatedly on the need to reverse the erosion of democracy in Canada - beginning with Parliament. I think this message will resonate with a great many Canadians and is one which opposition parties in this province must continue to press.

  • Frank
    April 20, 2013 - 11:01

    You don't understand the concept of implicit endorsement if you think that this case constitutes it. If you think that being a member of a Facebook group means that you endorse all the comments made in that group by supporters or detractors (most open groups contains both pro and con members), you must, by extension, agree that you, in participating in this Telegram comments section, also endorse all comments made here as it constitutes a similar medium. I'll leave this to your conscience to sort out: you imply that you voted for Gerry Rogers in the last election. Did you?

  • Peggy
    April 20, 2013 - 10:13

    Rogers needs to be held accountable. She was in a group that allowed death threats. Therefore, it is implict endorsement of the comments. She says she did not know she was in the group. However, facebook tells you when someone adds you to anything and it shows up in your group lists on the main page. So, Rogers had to know and if she never, she is not that smart and will not get another vote from me. In this world of online bullies there needs to be zero tolerance, no matter who the victim is.

    • W McLean
      April 20, 2013 - 14:04

      By this same standard, you know of another "group" that "allowed" "deah threats"? The PC Party, when it did nothing to denounce or distance itself from Danny Williams when he said of Eastern Health that "they should be shot over there". So on Monday morning, every PC MHA is going to quit that group...... right?

    • Dave
      April 20, 2013 - 14:38

      No Notifications when someone adds you to a group. That is a lie. You must be a member of the PC party, seems they are the only ones who don't know hoe facebook works. What happened to the death threat charges? Thats right..there were no death threats, only musings about death threats. Did you read the comments? I did. While they were vile and insensitive, they certainly were not threats. The biggest bully in all this is the lap dog Darin King. This whole thing blew up in his face. What a bunch we got for government.

    • lori martin
      April 21, 2013 - 03:58

      Peggy..first of all she did not join and she was not in a group "that ALLOWED death threats" she had been added to a group that is discussing our dissatisfaction with the present mismanagement of the present dunderdale gov't, NOT a hate group!!! the uncalled for and completely inappropriate borderline "threats" were made by one person who obviously needs to find better ways to deal with his frustration or whatever his problems might be! as SOON as they were seen by the administrator of the page they were REMOVED! (every single comment of over a thousand members cannot be monitored every single second so sometimes it may take a little time) those comments were NOT the consensus of the entire group, our purpose is responsible discussions (when not infiltrated by people trying to disrupt them) reference the affects of the budget and other cuts and mismanagement by our gov't! No one least of all Ms Rogers condoned those comments...highly unlikely Ms. Rogers even SEEN them (i am a member of the page and i didn't even see them and she is MUCH busier than i am) for her seeing notification that she had been added well i don't know about you but i hate my email being flooded by every little thing done on fb and have my notifications off and regardless even IF she had seen one....she did NOT make the comment and should NOT be held responsible for it!! just like the over 3000 members there now are not responsible for others posts, just like YOU shouldn't be held responsible or punished for someone ELSE writing something bad...think about it..on this comment section which is open to anyone, if someone made a threatening comment do you think the Telegram should be stopped!?! they can do only the same as was done in our group...delete the comment as soon as it is the disclaimer under where you commented. if we follow the 'reasonings' you stated then dunderdale should be thrown out of office! she was linked to PORN on her twitter and i don't care what she says about not using it for a time (that is NO excuse) because on twitter you physically HAVE to click to follow someone or something which means you are fully aware you are doing it...yourself! does it make it better that she did it a year ago?? NO! if you want to talk about BULLIES perhaps you should look to the gov't for trying to bully everyone and anyone they see getting in their way and in this case it was the NDP and Ms Rogers that was being bullied! being told she had to apologize for something she didn't do and even IF she had joined herself that is her God given right to freedom of speech, having and exercising that right which we ALL have does NOT mean we condone anyone else's who abuses theirs!! this last week of ridiculous behaviour on the part of our PC gov't is nothing more than intimidation and bullying tactics to deflect the negative attention off of themselves and i would question who is 'not that smart' not to see it!! the way...just my humble opinion, i do not expect anyone else to be responsible for it!

    • Corporate Psycho
      April 21, 2013 - 13:17

      Peggy, does this mean the Premier is a porn freak?

  • Richard
    April 20, 2013 - 09:25

    Nothing wrong with freedom of speech but would a public figure want to be associated to a group that condones ways to murder someone! That's what's missing here...the threats that were made were very concerning. We only have to look at what is going on in the world the past few days. We can never be too cautious! Looks like more than one group here trying to play politics with this! It's disgusting!

    • Frank
      April 20, 2013 - 10:42

      1) Fallacy: You claim that Gerry Rogers wanted to be associated with this group. 2) Fallacy: You claim this group condones murder. 3) Fallacy: It is a false conjunction to bring the events in Boston (or Iraq, or Beirut, or wherever) into this as somehow analogous. Disingenuous trolling.

    • lori martin
      April 21, 2013 - 04:25

      a group that condones ways to murder someone??? you are sadly misinformed Richard and anyone else who believes that is what happened (which is exactly what the PC gov't wants you to believe) NO ONE condoned any type of violence nor threat in the group...just like on many comment boards if a poster makes a derogatory or threatening comment it may not been seen immediately and in this case as SOON as it was seen by the moderators it was IMMEDIATELY REMOVED!! and in NO way whatsoever was it condoned by ANYONE...the poster was banned and removed and as i am sure you can understand in a group of over 3000 posters not even everyone even saw the post since we all can't be glued to our screens and one particular site 24/7, the most important thing is it was REMOVED and dealt with..our group is trying very hard to conduct responsible discussions reference our dissatisfaction of the mismanagement of our present gov't, there is no hate group as some may think...if you are online much at all surely you realize when you are in an open forum there are bound to be those who want to discredit or just for kicks disrupt the majority and unfortunately we have to deal with just that kind of thing but for the most part we are peaceful people who are frustrated over the state of our province! what is disgusting to me in this besides the injustice that went on in the HoA if the PC gov't comparing or even referencing the current events in the world...comparing an 'alleged' threat to the HORRIFIC tragedies of the people lost in senseless violence?? really??? i in NO way would ever condon any threat made on anyone's life and i in no way am trying to imply it was or was not a real threat...all threats should be considered serious until such time they are proven otherwise...and not to make light of it but do you even know what the 'alleged' threat said?? i am not being flippant i am asking honestly because as you mentioned, with what is going on in this world these days, a lot of times people don't even need to hear the content they just hear the claim and automatically are outraged...i am not repeating what was 'reported' as being the content because it was not my comment and i wouldn't want anyone taking it as such however you could find it the same way i did through research on articles which i wish everyone would do before automatically believing the retoric the present gov't is spinning to keep your mind off their mismanagement of your future! again just my humble one should be held responsible for it!!

  • Cyril Rogers
    April 20, 2013 - 09:23

    We are getting all kinds of attention on this one....for all the wrong reasons. There is not one shred of evidence linking Ms Rogers(not related, by the way) to these moronic statements by some disgruntled individual. Now, that person deserves censure, as public criticism should be about policy, not the person, and never in any way that suggests a threat to anyone. I abhor the stand taken by this government on issues like Muskrat Falls, mainly because I strongly believe it will mean tremendous financial hardship for the ordinary people this province going forward.....but ultimately the public will respond to such blind and wilful negligence. The one crucial aspect of MF, as I have stated repeatedly, is that it cannot be undone....... and we have no recourse,to make those making that decision pay for their unwillingness to consider other and much cheaper alternatives. It is bordering on criminal, in my opinion, given the obvious efforts by government to hide so much information........ only to fill the TV screens with four hundred thousand dollars worth of baffle-gab, prior to a foregone sanctioning exercise in the HOA.

  • Realize
    April 20, 2013 - 09:11

    Mr. Karanicolas apparently you do not realize that in a Monarchy with a Queen and Jesters freedom of information and freedom of expression are only allowed per order of the Queen and her cabinet.

  • Will Cole
    April 20, 2013 - 09:05

    A combination of ineptitude, callous partisanship, and blind stupidity resulted in this fiasco which had the troubling side-effect of infringing on the demococratic rights of the people of St. John's Centre. If this demonstrates the level of strategic capability of the Dunderdale government, this province is in grave trouble indeed. It is time for Dunderdale and her poll-manipulating Men In Black to go, and take your damn Bill 29 with you.

  • charlie
    April 20, 2013 - 09:00

    Thank you Michael for this insightful article. I am appalled by the actions of this government. They expected Gerry rogers to apologize. When she refused to their plan backfired then they had to try another means to discredit Rogers. . I heard Joan Shea on the radio the other day she sounded frustrated that Gerry Rogers wasn't doing what she wanted her to do. Quit the sight. I got a message for this government. You may be able to tell people what to do in your personal lives. But you are acting like spoiled children who do not get their way!!! The speaker of the house should be removed. Pathetic!!!