Ontario Court of Appeal affirms without reasons Ottawa library’s censorship of documentary film

OTTAWA:  The Justice Centre received a judgment on February 14, 2020, from the Ontario Court of Appeal, denying Madeline Weld the right to appeal a September 16 lower court ruling in Weld v. Ottawa Public Library. No reasons were given.

This disappointing judgment leaves the questionable earlier ruling from the Divisional Court standing. The lack of written reasons from the Court of Appeal on an important constitutional matter with broad implications for the public are troubling.

The Justice Centre represented Ms. Weld and Valerie Price Thomas in their challenge to the Ottawa Public Library’s last-minute cancellation of a private viewing of the documentary film, Killing Europe. The showing of the film was initially approved by library staff in November of 2017, and then suddenly cancelled. The documentary discusses social, political and cultural topics relating to immigration’s impact on Europe.   The documentary’s producer, Michael Hansen, was scheduled to attend the showing personally at the Ottawa Public Library and answer questions about the film.

In November of 2017, the day before the scheduled film showing, the Ottawa Public Library’s CEO emailed Ms. Weld stating that they were cancelling the booking after having received some complaints. The Library undertook a further review and decided that “the content falls within the category of material that the Library is not prepared to have displayed or screened on its property.”

Ms. Weld and Ms. Thomas were seeking, among other things, a declaration that this decision unjustifiably violated freedom of expression as protected by s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to receive expressive material.

The Justice Centre argued that public libraries, as public entities governed by statute, cannot simply cancel a film screening because they do not support or agree with the views expressed in the film. Like all government entities, public libraries must uphold the Charter and be content-neutral in their delivery of services.

The Divisional Court found that the Ottawa Public Library was not acting in a public capacity when it cancelled its agreement with Ms. Weld. The Court, having concluded that this was a private contract, declined to consider the application of the Charter.

“In a case that primarily concerns a citizen’s freedom of expression, the Court should have considered the Charter when reviewing the cancellation of the facility rental contract,” said Justice Centre lawyer Lisa Bildy when the Notice of Motion for leave to appeal was filed last fall. “This could have widespread impact, since public bodies often make decisions affecting citizens on whether to allow expressive content in various forums they operate.”

More information about this case is available here. More info about “Killing Europe” is available here.