Three local activists are suing Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, arguing that he violated their charter right to freedom of expression by blocking them on Twitter.
In the last two weeks of September, Watson blocked three people: lawyer, activist and professor Emilie Taman, who publicly expressed her opposition to the city’s choice of location for the new library; media officer for the Council of Canadians Dylan Penner; and an organizer with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, who was at the centre of the pop up overdose prevention tent that operated illegally in Ottawa last year James Hutt.
Watson breached Taman, Penner, and Hutt’s right to freedom of expression by blocking them, the lawsuit claims, arguing that the mayor is denying the applicants access to information and "ability to engage in debate concerning municipal issues using Twitter."
The charter protects “the derivative right to access government information where it is necessary for meaningful expression on the functioning of government and other matters of public concern," the lawsuit states.
“I believe in civility in public discourse, and this type of behaviour would not be tolerated in a face-to-face debate.”
Watson frequently uses his account to tweet about city affairs and his activities as mayor, and the tweets often spark discussions among members of the public. The lawsuit contends that by blocking people, Watson is preventing their political expression.
Watson, however, argues that his Twitter account is his personal account.
"I have the right not to be attacked and harassed by the same individuals on a regular basis,” the mayor said in a statement on Wednesday. “I believe in civility in public discourse, and this type of behaviour would not be tolerated in a face-to-face debate. I look forward to dealing with this matter in due course."
He went on to suggest that Taman, whom he blocked after she suggested in one tweet that he had a right-wing agenda, was “using social media to run for office in the next federal election,” adding that he doesn’t “have to be subjected to her constant attacks on my integrity.”
On Thursday, Taman defended her tweets, saying she hadn’t done any of the things he had described as “blockable behaviour” — using profanities, threatening, or tweeting him multiple times on the same issue.
“I’ve only tweeted him about 20 times in the last 12-18 months.”
“There is simply no way my tweets can be construed as harassing. I’ve only tweeted him about 20 times in the last 12-18 months,” she tweeted. “Have I been critical of his record as mayor? Yes. That does not come close to the threshold he claims to have set for blocking people.”
Hutt says Watson blocked him after several tweets and retweets which questioned why the mayor was missing two debates — one on the environment, and another on gender issues.
The case could be a test case in Canada, with the potential to be applied to any elected public figure in the future.
In May, a federal judge ruled that U.S. President Donald Trump could not block people on Twitter because it violates the First Amendment, since his Twitter account is considered a public forum.
Cover image of Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Toronto Mayor John Tory are seen during a news conference at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities meetings in Ottawa on January 20, 2017. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press