Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bill C-309 Unmasked

Bill C-309 is Canadian legislation criminalizing the act of protesters covering their face during demonstrations, with a 5-year prison sentence for the offence.  The proposal was introduced in the context of "Occupy Canada" (a peaceful but technically unlawful assembly), and the riot following the 2011 Stanley Cup final game in Vancouver.  The bill would not apply to those with "lawful excuse" to conceal their identity and wear masks, such as riot police.  There is an existing law in Canada entitled "Disguise With Intent" which already criminalizes the wearing of a disguise during a criminal action with a jail sentence up to 10 years, but it has a "higher burden of proof", ie. the wearer must commit, or intend to commit, a crime.  The new bill would grant police the authority to arrest anyone who is wearing a mask not only after there is evidence of rioting, but merely after police declare a peaceful demonstration to be an "unlawful assembly".  Critics of the new law have said that it takes away an individual's right to demonstrate anonymously, that an individual is not necessarily going to commit a crime just because he or she is wearing a mask - it is reasonable to think that the person just wants to remain anonymous and protect his or her identity to avoid recognition causing personal or professional problems.  Activist groups have stated that the bill poses a threat to the freedom of assembly.  Others have pointed out that the behaviour one partakes in is the illegal factor and that the act of wearing a mask in and of itself should not be considered a crime even during unlawful assemblies and riots.  (with help from Wikipedia)  This is a tough one for me.  I am a law-and-order guy, and have argued in this space for more video surveillance cameras, and against facial coverings when voting, going through airport security, flying on a regularly-scheduled aircraft, entering a bank, rioting, and at citizenship ceremonies.  Yet last week I argued for anonymous free speech, and well remember wearing an old gas mask myself in an anti-pollution march in the '60s, to make a point rather than avoid recognition.  In the end I have to be against this proposed law. Peaceful assemblies should never be unlawful (unless on private property), and this law is just a reaction to police bungling in Vancouver and at the G-20 meetings in Toronto.  I always give the police the benefit of the doubt, it's a tough job and I admire the men and women who put on a bullet-proof vest everyday to go to work.  (Just think about that for a second.)  But I am against this law.  Besides, there's already one on the books.  Perhaps it needs some work.