Supreme Court of Canada gives Alberta union a win in picket-line privacy case

OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada on Friday struck down Alberta’s privacy law as unconstitutional, in a case involving a union that photographed and videotaped people crossing a picket line during a long strike in 2006.

The United Food and Commercial Workers local representing employees at the Palace Casino at West Edmonton Mall was involved in a 305-day strike in 2006 when it took the pictures.

The union posted signs near the picket line saying images of people crossing the line might be posted on a website.

Several people complained to the provincial information and privacy commissioner, citing Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act.

The commissioner appointed an adjudicator who ruled that the union had violated the act.

A court, however, found that ruling violated the union’s rights and the Alberta Court of Appeal granted the union a constitutional exemption from the act.

The Supreme Court, in its 9-0 ruling essentially agreed, but threw out the whole law, while giving the province a year to make appropriate changes.

The justices stressed the fundamental importance of freedom of expression in the context of labour disputes and said the province’s privacy law imposed restrictions on the union’s ability to communicate and promote its case during a legal strike.

Justices Rosalie Abella and Thomas Cromwell, writing for the court, said the privacy act does address important issues and seeks to give people a measure of control over personal information.

“The price PIPA exacts, however, is disproportionate to the benefits it promotes,” they wrote.

They said the act is overly broad.

“This court has long recognized the fundamental importance of freedom of expression in the context of labour disputes,” they said.

“PIPA imposes restrictions on a union’s ability to communicate and persuade the public of its cause, impairing its ability to use one of its most effective bargaining strategies in the course of a lawful strike.

“In our view, this infringement of the right to freedom of expression is disproportionate to the government’s objective of providing individuals with control over personal information that they expose by crossing a picket line.”

The violation of the union’s rights is not otherwise justified constitutionally, they added.

During their arguments, both the privacy commissioner and the provincial attorney general said if they lost the case, they would prefer to see the whole law struck down.

“We agree,” Abella and Cromwell wrote. “Given the comprehensive and integrated structure of the statute, we do not think it is appropriate to pick and choose among the various amendments that would make PIPA constitutionally compliant.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.