Transportation agency accused of censorship after deleting online criticism
'This is a form of censorship ... and this is a violation of freedom of speech,' says air passenger advocate
The Canadian Transportation Agency and an air passenger rights activist are engaged in an online battle that pits freedom of expression against a government agency's right to delete negative comments from its social media accounts.
Gabor Lukacs has won 24 of 27 court cases against airlines, which were taken to the agency. Recently, he posted "5 Reasons not to Trust the Canadian Transportation Agency" on the agency's Facebook page.
The post compares the number of air passenger complaints in recent years to the dwindling number of enforcement actions against airlines.
It also names some agency employees, including Doug Smith, its chief dispute officer.
The post includes a discipline history of Smith from the Law Society of Upper Canada in 2004, when he was suspended from practising law.
Smith told CBC News that Lukacs is entitled to put whatever he wants on his own page. He doesn't dispute the information, but said he's unsure how that action years ago is relevant to his current job or a reason not to trust the agency.
Social media guidelines
Lukacs subsequently received messages that were purportedly from the agency's social media co-ordinator — though no name was given. They said, in part, that: "The agency is committed to an open and transparent dialogue with Canadians and welcomes a variety of perspectives and opinions."
However, it also said its social media guidelines specify that it may remove comments that contain personal information or put forward serious, unproven or inaccurate accusations against individuals or organizations.
The agency accused the Halifax man of directly targeting a number of employees with statements that bring their integrity into question. It told him if the posts continued, the agency would block his ability to comment on both its Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Lukacs wrote back and asked what specifically was unproven or inaccurate, but did not receive a response. CBC News asked the same question, but the agency did not provide details.
'Orwellian' censorship, says Lukacs
Every time Lukacs tried to repost the document, it was removed.
"This is a form of censorship, of government censorship, and this is a violation of freedom of speech," Lukacs told CBC in an interview from Hungary, where he is vacationing. He added that a government body cannot tell Canadians what to think and cannot simply censor comments.
He said all the information in the post comes from public documents and is true, honest and fair opinion based on facts.
Lukacs said the response to his post is an attempt to censor views that are not favourable to the agency.
"This a variant of an Orwellian world where a government body is attempting to decide what citizens should think, what citizens should read, what they should say and what opinions are valid or not," he said.
Post repeatedly deleted
Part of the agency's mandate is to provide consumer protection for air passengers. On its Facebook page, the agency gives these four reasons for deleting Lukacs's post:
- "It is repetitive or spam."
- It contains personal information.
- It "puts forward serious, unproven or inaccurate accusations against individuals or organizations."
- It does not "add to the normal flow of the discussion."
In response to an inquiry from CBC, the agency cited its social media guidelines and the same reasons for deleting the post. It did not respond to a second request for specific inaccurate accusations in the post.
A spokesperson for the agency said the item was posted "more than 250 times in the last three days."
Lukacs said he developed a program that reposted his remarks as soon as the agency deleted them.
A Halifax-based privacy lawyer said the government needs to think about the type of precedent this is setting and whether it is violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
David Fraser reviewed both the post from Lukacs and the agency's response. Fraser said he found the post relevant and a matter of public interest.
"[Lukacs] has an informed point of view and the fact the government has banned him from an important means of public communication has a significant impact on his freedom of expression and I'm not sure it's necessarily justifiable in the circumstances."
He also did not agree with the justification for removing the post, since the charter says everyone has a right to freedom of expression and censoring someone because their views are politically unpopular isn't justified.
"It really has the appearance of government censoring speech they don't agree with," he said.
'Very, very troubling'
Fraser said he doesn't consider the reposting to be spam, calling it someone being persistent in trying to get their message out and taking measures to counteract the deletion.
Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Halifax, told CBC News that Lukacs's post is "a perfectly legitimate exercise of freedom of expression."
He called the removal of the post "very, very troubling," and said it's concerning that a public body would try to suppress legitimate criticism.
"One of the reasons our democracy works is because we do have people that engage in robust criticism and that hold public bodies to account," said Mendel, whose organization is dedicated to fostering democracy and human rights, including freedom of speech.
Fraser said the continued use of social media by governments in the future means "they really need to stop and think about what sort of precedent this sets within government for blocking citizens and other stakeholders from communicating with government, about government and with other individuals."
He said as a private citizen, he can delete whatever he wants from his Facebook page, but "the government is constrained by the charter."
"Government can't, unless authorized by law, contractually bind you to a particular kind of code of conduct for things like that."