Disciplining Employees For Expressing Their Views: The Case Of The Halifax Proud Boys

September 2017

Those intent on stifling expression will sometimes, quite correctly, insist that though you have the right to free speech, you do not have the right to escape the consequences of what you say.

Should those consequences include being fired? Increasingly, people are finding themselves out of work for public utterances having nothing at all to do with their job. Firings proceed on the basis that the utterance has brought one’s workplace into disrepute simply by speaker association. Such was the case with the Ontario Hydro One worker who, in 2015, made light of the “FHRITP” epitaph directed at a reporter.

There is a legitimate point here and it seems reasonable that one should remain cognizant of one’s role as a paid employee before expressing views that may harm the employer. During my time as a police officer I was acutely aware that indiscrete political utterances made publicly would quickly land me in hot water. Surely, however, this should not mean that employers may police the political expression of their employees at will. It seems to me that the criteria to be examined in such matters are the degree to which the utterance 1) compromises one’s ability to perform one’s work-related functions, 2) interferes with the ability of others in the workplace to fulfil their job commitments without reasonable perceptions of harassment, and 3) brings the entire workplace into a state of real (as opposed to imagined or fanciful) disrepute.

A case in point is the recent brouhaha involving the counter-protest by five Proud Boys, all members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), against those protesting the presence in a Halifax park of a statue of Edward Cornwallis. The onslaught from both mainstream media and social media was immediate and severe with the Proud Boys denounced as racists and white supremacists. Under such circumstances the distraught handwringing of military brass about diversity and inclusiveness was predictable. Even the Minister of Defense deemed it appropriate to weigh in. Currently the Proud Boys remain suspended facing possible dismissal or, at the very least, an extended program of “re-education.”

So, did the “boys” compromise their ability to function as members of the CAF? Nothing that I have read on the matter reveals any behaviour even remotely suggestive that they are unfit to serve. Well, then, what about the impact on military personnel, especially on Indigenous and minority personnel? Will these actions of the Proud Boys create a hostile work environment? Well, despite the casual labeling of these men as racists, neither the video of the event nor news reports provide any evidence that they employed racial epithets or said anything pejorative about Indigenous people. One did claim that Canada was a British colony while another carried, incidentally I understand, a Red Ensign but, to my knowledge, Canada’s former national flag has yet to take on the connotations of the Confederate flag south of the border. The Proud Boys organization explicitly disavows racism and homophobia, and some reports indicated that the group of five included two Indigenous people and one gay man. One worries about the fragility of any CAF member who would genuinely feel harassed merely because a co-worker has expressed a disagreeable opinion.

Finally, there is the question about the degree to which these Halifax Proud Boys brought the CAF into disrepute. By all accounts the manifestation of their protest was mild and their behaviour civil, even when faced with a markedly uncivil reception. Beyond the reality of their very presence (which they should have known would be provocative), they were not disruptive and their visit was short.

Although some have equated the position and actions of these five young men to the racists in Charlottesville, such a comparison should be viewed as the product of less than reasoned thought. It is true that Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnis, despite contentions to the contrary, has in the past crossed the line between anti-Islamic and anti-Israeli commentary, on the one side, and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic speech, on the other. It is also true, however, that he strongly disavowed the actions of the far-right groups in Charlottesville well prior to the event and he has thrown Proud Boys out of the organization for expressing racist sentiment. Although they are ethnocentric and chauvinistic nationalists, the Halifax Proud Boys are not White nationalists.

The aspirations of the Proud Boys provide ample reason for many to take offense and their customs are decidedly juvenile. However, there is nothing that these five men did to garner such a regressive and punitive response and, along with freedom of expression, this is a country purporting to respect freedom of assembly and association. With hyperbole stripped away, the Proud Boys provided a political counterpoint to the political gesture being made by the Cornwallis protestors, albeit in a more subdued and civil manner.

Employers should only rarely and with regret limit expression out of concern for their workplace. Furthermore, when employers decide to embark on such an extraordinary incursion, they must do so with an even hand. They need to apply the same principles to all their employees and not punish people simply for expressing unpopular positions.

By challenging an activity presenting itself as a form of First Nations activism, the Proud Boys committed a sort of secular blasphemy. That such a storm could be generated by such mild expression can only be explained on the basis that these five men dared to stick their collective finger into one of the matters that Officialdom in Canada (and too many Canadians at large) has deemed off-limit to debate. Such selective outrage not only makes the Halifax Proud Boys the target of unfair discrimination but threatens the very nature of a supposedly mature, secure democracy.