Beneath the mask bill

Last week, Blake Richards’ bill on wearing a mask in an unlawful assembly passed the House. Irwin Cotler explains why it’s unnecessary at best, unconstitutional at best.

Indeed, this is one of the key difficulties of legislating in this area. Pre-emptive arrests, especially on the basis of dress, are constitutionally problematic, and law enforcement already has the legislative tools to deal with masked rioters once a riot is underway. As a result, the best way forward for parliamentarians is simply to support police efforts to develop better training methods and better crowd control techniques, to improve communication with revellers and demonstrators, to share best practices, and to increase the number of qualified officers to deal with large public gatherings.

Such an approach is less likely to achieve headlines, but far more likely to achieve results. Once the real bill is unmasked there remains no evidence that, had this legislation been on the books last year, the Vancouver riots would not have occurred, that they would have been policed differently, or that anyone would be more severely punished for participating.

Dylan Reid reviews the ancient history of legislators attempting to limit the ability of people to wear masks.

Modern authorities should take a page from this sixteenth-century experience and learn to distinguish between harmless and dangerous uses of masks. The New York anti-mask law did introduce an exception for parties in the 1970s. And the French law against covering the face also had to include a series of exceptions, including wearing them for Carnival. But these laws still don’t distinguish between wearing a mask for peaceful protest and wearing one for rioting. The resurgence of this long-forgotten issue reminds us that covering the face in public carries power—to set oneself apart from society or to identify oneself as part of a group, to break free of social rules or protest against authority. After all, even children carry an implicit threat when they walk the streets in disguise at the end of October, tricks if there are no treats—but we have yet to abolish Hallowe’en.