We should all be watching the Carolyn Strom appeal

Anyone who believes that the health care system should ensure the protection of patients should be watching an upcoming appeal of a Saskatchewan nurse in a freedom of expression case involving critical Facebook comments.

Anyone who cares about professional ethics, justice, freedom of expression, and health care should be watching

After being found guilty of professional misconduct by the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses' Association, Carolyn Strom is hoping that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal will clear her of any wrongdoing. (Victoria Dinh/CBC)

It is hard for most of us to imagine that a personal opinion criticizing the health care that a loved one received could cost someone $26,000 plus personal legal fees; but Carolyn Strom gained unplanned notoriety last October when the discipline committee of the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses' Association (SRNA) found her guilty of "professional misconduct" for a post she made venting about her grandfather's "subpar care" at St. Joseph's Health facility. The decision was met with much public outrage. 

The Discipline Committee concluded that her "off-duty" comments were subject to discipline because she identified herself as a registered nurse when she made the comments. As the comments were made on social media, the committee concluded that they harmed the reputation of the nursing staff and undermined public confidence, amounting to professional misconduct. The committee determined the penalty: A reprimand, a $1,000 fine, $25,000 to cover some of the costs of the disciplinary proceedings, a requirement that she write a "self-reflective essay," and a condition that she complete an online ethics course. We have yet to hear if the deficiencies she cited were valid, rectified or even examined by the SRNA or anyone else.

Understandably upset with the decision, she appealed to the Saskatoon Court of Queen's Bench. There she argued that the committee made errors in finding that her off-duty conduct should have been subject to discipline; that her comments amounted to professional misconduct; that the decision infringed on her right to freedom of expression under the Charter; and that she shouldn't have to pay such a substantial an award of costs. Justice Grant Currie, of the Court of Queen's Bench, found that the standard of appellant review, also understood to be the amount of deference given by the Court in reviewing a decision of the Discipline Committee, was on a standard of "reasonableness." This means that so long as the decisions of the Committee fell within "the range of reasonable outcomes" he could not substitute his own view as to the correct decision.

It is notable that although Strom had other avenues to voice her concerns, she was not accused of libel or defamation. She was not personally sued. Ostensibly she was found guilty by her professional body for voicing her true feelings. Her comments may have hurt the reputation and feelings of others — but as American conservative pundit Ben Shapiro often heartlessly says: "Facts don't care about feelings." He is right. They don't. But we should care about free speech and our health care, shouldn't we? Shouldn't the SRNA?

On September 17 a panel of judges at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal will hear her appeal. So can anyone with an internet connection. The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have intervened and will also make arguments at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.  Many citizens across the country will be watching the live stream. We should all be watching the outcome. Anyone who cares about professional ethics, justice, freedom of expression, and health care should be watching this case. Anyone who believes that the health care system should ensure the protection of patients should be watching this case.

Being able to watch our justice system at work is a privilege — and it should also be a right. Very few of our citizens are able to watch first-hand how our system works. In this age of technology and access to so much information, we are still in many respects unable to access and watch our justice system work. On September 17 we will see our justice system work. We will hear why the discipline committee decided the case as it did. We will hear why some feel it is wrong. We will hear why it should stand or be overturned.

Although I will be arguing a criminal case in another city, I will no doubt take the opportunity to watch the recording. Although I have never spoken to Ms. Strom personally, I am one of the many people that donated to her GoFundMe page because I believe we all have something at stake here. In fact, we may even have more to lose than Strom. And no matter the outcome, Strom has achieved something. By standing up for what she believed was right, having her case heard and televised in our highest court, she has achieved a significant victory. She let it be known that she would not stand idle after her loved one's treatment fell below her expectations. She has not only shed light on the importance of end-of-life care. She has set up a giant projector so we can all see.

Strom may have lost her discipline hearing. She may have lost her appeal to the Court of Queen's Bench. She may lose her appeal to the Court of Appeal. But as a citizen, she has won. She reached even more of an audience than she probably hoped for. She was disciplined. But she wasn't silenced. No one should be.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

Read more about what we're looking for here, then email with your idea.


Brian Pfefferle is a Saskatoon criminal lawyer and sessional instructor at the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan.