Supreme Court strikes down Alberta’s privacy law in union picket-line case

Supreme Court strikes down Alberta’s privacy law in union picket-line case by John Cotter, The Canadian Press, November 15, 2013, Calgary Herald
The Supreme Court of Canada on Friday struck down Alberta’s privacy law as unconstitutional in a case where a union photographed and videotaped people crossing a picket line during a long strike. Union lawyer Gwen Gray said the high court’s unanimous decision to throw out the law shows how restrictive it is. “The union is very pleased with the Supreme Court ruling. It has been a long court battle,” Gray said in an interview. “It is a very important decision for not just trade unions, but any kind of public organization or people’s organization.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers local representing employees at the Palace Casino at West Edmonton Mall was involved in a 305-day strike in 2006. The union posted signs near the picket line saying images of people crossing the line might be posted on a website. Several people cited Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act in their complaints to the provincial information and privacy commissioner. The commissioner appointed an adjudicator, who ruled that the union had violated the act. But a court found that the ruling violated the union’s rights and the Alberta Court of Appeal granted the union a constitutional exemption from the act. The Supreme Court, in a 9-0 ruling, essentially agreed, but also threw out the whole law.It has given the province a year to make appropriate changes.

Alberta’s Justice Department and privacy commissioner said they were studying the ruling and were not immediately available for comment. Gray said privacy laws are needed but they shouldn’t restrict the ability of unions or anyone else to freely communicate about public or political events. The union hopes the Alberta government will bring in a new privacy law that would be limited to commercial activity, she said. “If that was the case the union’s picket line conduct would not be subject to the privacy law,” she said. “That is the way it is federally and in every other province in Canada. That is what we would like the government of Alberta to do.”

The high court justices stressed the basic importance of freedom of expression in the context of labour disputes. They said Alberta’s privacy law imposed restrictions on the union’s ability to communicate and promote its case during a legal strike. Justices Rosalie Abella and Thomas Cromwell, writing for the court, said the privacy act does address important issues and seeks to give people a measure of control over personal information. “The price (the act) exacts, however, is disproportionate to the benefits it promotes,” they wrote. They said Alberta’s privacy act is overly broad. “(The act) imposes restrictions on a union’s ability to communicate and persuade the public of its cause, impairing its ability to use one of its most effective bargaining strategies in the course of a lawful strike.” During their arguments before the court, both the privacy commissioner and the provincial attorney general had said that if they lost the case, they would prefer to see the whole law struck down. “We agree,” Abella and Cromwell wrote. [Emphasis added]

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