Of Masks and Freedom
As a child, I spent many an hour watching shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “Zorro” with my dad. My father made sure we were all grounded in super hero lore, where you will find ample justification for secret identities.
When I progressed from comics to real books I continued on in the same vein, reading the Scarlet Pimpernel books when I could get hold of them in high school. Maybe that’s why I have never questioned the validity of the idea that anonymity is so important for freedom.
Anonymity offers protection; we can say what needs to be said Without anonymity, fear of repercussion can silence the truth. Without a shield of anonymity, people must first weigh the harm speaking out can cause themselves and their families. For many the risk is too great.
It is the goal of repressive government to silence dissent, but it is positively disturbing to find this in our democratic governments.
In case you’re new to Byron’s story, he was a young man who had everything: a beautiful wife, a beautiful home, and a challenging security business. He lost all those things, along with his liberty for nearly a year, because he chose to protest the G20. Byron is fortunate, however, because he hasn’t lost everything, he still has the trust and strong support of his friends and family. The crown has dropped almost all the charges against him. Yet although the remaining charges appear dubious, they keep the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, with the possibility of possible further incarceration. As well the charges provide the basis for keeping Byron restrained under onerous bail conditions which compromise Byron’s ability to work in his chosen profession to earn needed funds to pay for his defence, among other things. And making things harder still, PayPal summarily closed Byron’s donation account, but it is still possible to make donations.
Byron Sonne did not wear a mask. He went about his business openly, broadcasting words and images on publicly accessible Internet venues like Flickr and Twitter. I very much doubt Byron was trying to hide his identity online; he certainly had the technical expertise to do so had that been his intent. He wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in the computer security business without the ability to cover his digital tracks online. I believe that it is telling that he made no real effort to do so.
The way our legal system has dealt with Byron Sonne raises disturbing questions:
- Is justice blind, or are some Canadian citizens treated differently under the law?
- Are Canadian citizens allowed to question what our government does?
- Are we allowed to observe the actions our government and its representatives?
- If we take photographs of police will we be arrested?
- Are citizens allowed anonymity or can we be compelled to provide identity papers without cause?
- Are we allowed to hold our government accountable?
- Do citizens still have any civil liberties?
- Are Canadians even allowed to discuss such things?
In Canada Private Member’s Bill 309 seeks to criminalize the act of covering your face. There are many legitimate reasons to cover a human face. Hallowe’en masks are common today, but human beings have found cause to wear masks much longer, over centuries, religions and cultures.
Sometimes actors wear masks.
Allergy sufferers often wear masks to protect themselves from airborne allergens.
There are many cultures and religions requiring the covering of various parts of the human head.
Let us not forget, this is Canada. Many Canadians have had cause to wear hoods, hats and scarves to protect our heads from the elements.
All of these are excellent reasons for this Private Member’s bill to fail. After all, how often do Private Member’s Bill’s get passed, anyway? But Canada currently has a majority government, so it is very likely that this law will be passed.
If the wearing of a mask ~ or more telling, the covering of a face ~ in itself becomes a crime, it will be a horrendous blow to free speech in Canada. Some might feel that this law isn’t so bad, because Bill 309 would only make it illegal in certain circumstances. Except that the definition is broad enough it can be applied to any circumstance.
And the government gets to decide. The result of such legislation will make it far more dangerous for citizens to attend any sort of political protest at all. Even if you attend a peaceful protest without wearing a mask, things might get out of hand. You might not even be attending such a protest, but walking along the public streets minding your own business, yet may find yourself swept up and kettled by the police. This happened to many uninvolved Toronto residents during the G20.
If Bill 309 becomes law, the simple act of covering your face with your sleeve against tear gas in the air could lead to criminal charges.
Ironically there have been far too many instances of police officers removing their badges – and thus, choosing anonymity – prior to exceeding the scope of their legal authority and behaving in a criminal manner. Yet this far more dangerous behaviour (and evidence of premeditation) has resulted in little if any repercussion and is not covered in this bill.
It isn’t possible to have a healthy democracy unless citizens have the right to free speech and peaceful protest.