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4 min

‘Rough and tumble’ democracy

Surrey settlement problematic: BCCLA

POLICING A PUBLIC FORUM: Holding a board accountable for opinions expressed at a public forum 'is heading down a sticky wicket,' warns Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association. Credit: Rosamond Norbury Photo

The next time the Surrey School Board convenes a
public meeting to consider queer content in school, speakers will be under tight surveillance following a recent out-of-court resolution of a human rights complaint two lesbian parents filed three years ago.

Co-complainants Kim Forster and Carol Pegura filed the complaint after being subjected to what they felt was a toxic, homophobic atmosphere at two June 2003 meetings held to review the board’s earlier decision to ban gay-friendly books from its classrooms.

Many speakers expressed anti-gay sentiments at the time and the board did nothing to stop them, Forster explains.

The Sep 6 settlement says the board “affirms its commitment to respecting the diversity of the community and the importance of demonstrating tolerance and understanding of differences, including recognition and respect for same-sex families in the school district.”

Towards that end, the board expects all speakers to conduct themselves in a “respectful manner,” and endorses Section 7 of the BC Human Rights Code, which prohibits people from publishing discriminatory statements based on sexual orientation and a number of other grounds. It also supports the “fundamental freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” guaranteed by Section 2 of Canada’s Charter of Rights.

“These rights and freedoms, however, must be balanced with the school board’s commitment to Section 7 of the Human Rights Code,” the settlement states. People who engage in “improper conduct” may be expelled, it adds.

Forster says she’s satisfied with the board’s promise to ensure that meeting participants feel equally welcome and respected, rather than subjected to the type of anti-gay rhetoric she and Pegura felt threatened by three years ago.

“If people are offended by what is presented at meetings they can notify district staff who will bring it to the attention of the board chair while the meeting is going on. It will then be up to the chair to take action or do something, especially if a person’s comment is not constructive,” Forster says. “At the [2003] meetings, there were groups who stacked the mics and felt empowered to spew hatred, and that’s not a productive process.”

She is particularly pleased with the option to have people ejected if they spew hatred. “No one is allowed to express things in a manner that violates Section 7 of the Human Rights Code.”

But the policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association says the possibility of expelling people from a public meeting is problematic.

It’s censorship of political speech that goes on between the public and its elected representatives-a right which is afforded the highest legal protection, warns Micheal Vonn. “To have a public forum where you are holding your board accountable for the speech or opinions expressed at that forum, and wanting your board to police that, is heading down a sticky wicket.”
Forster maintains the public education system is not your “regular” public forum where anything goes.

“Even in Section 1 of the code, [there is the recognition that] in serving the greater good, there are allowances for curtailing freedom of speech if it affronts people’s dignity,” she suggests. The board “wouldn’t consider letting the Ku Klux Klan come in to present on multiculturalism in schools. That wouldn’t happen. The school district would never condone those attitudes or give them airtime. It wouldn’t happen where racism is concerned.”

Vonn, who was not at the meetings that led to the parents’ complaint, says there is no question from the transcripts that language used in the presentations to the board was offensive.

It is also clear to her that the first language of some speakers at the meeting was not English. She suggests such a situation calls for a moderator to intervene and find out “what’s behind the words used and attitudes expressed”-before immediately progressing to the stage where certain ideas and modes of expression are deemed unacceptable.
“This is a different example, but one people can relate to. If you’re an AIDS service organization helpline and someone phones up using the kind of language that you don’t particularly like to hear. Before you say, ‘I’m not going to listen to this abuse,’ you have to figure out if that’s the only language they have. It would help to find out, and help people hear that person better.

“Now sometimes you can sense that is not what you’re getting, and that requires a certain amount of moderation,” she continues. “It seems to me we are on dangerous turf here, where we have protected political speech, to be able to say that some things, whatever those are, will just receive the hand without any exploration.”

Shawn Wilson acknowledges the existence of a slippery slope in trying to reconcile the multiple levels of diversity and difference in a district like Surrey. But the new chair of the Surrey School Board feels confident that he and his fellow trustees can reach a consensus on how meetings should proceed in the future.

“The board accepts the fact that there were people who may have heard comments that hurt,” he says. “We have policy that deals with discussions of sensitive topics and staying on task and topic.

“You know at the time of the meetings, there was more information provided [by speakers] than was necessary to make a decision on the three books,” he notes. “If necessary, it’s possible to cut someone off if they drift away from task or are making comments that are influenced by their background.”

What’s required, repeats Vonn, is skilled moderation, a means to manage the atmosphere. “Part of the problem is that as Canadians, when it comes to democracy, we have some buffing up to do. Democracy is very rough and tumble, and I’m being charitable here. We do not have a right not to be offended,” she says.

“That said, if there is a charge or deeper sense of feeling imperilled in some way, we have chosen mechanisms for that. We can go to the police,” she continues.

“I have to ask myself what are we risking here in terms of our fundamental rights if we look to the public forum to fulfill that [policing] role.”