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Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois' sentence is a threat to free speech

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During the student strike of this past year, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was a spokesperson for the CLASSE, the student association representing roughly 70 per cent of striking students. In this capacity his role was not to set policy or give direction to striking students, but to explain the decisions and positions taken democratically by students themselves in general assemblies and CLASSE congresses to the media and public.

In this capacity he gave an interview to the French language all news channel RDI on May 13, in which he stated: “What is clear is that those decisions, those attempts to force the return to class, never function because the students, who have been striking for 13 weeks, are in mutual solidarity, and generally respect the democratic will that was expressed through the strike vote and I think it is completely legitimate for the students to take steps to enforce the democratic choice that was made to go on strike. It is of course regrettable that there are indeed a minority of students who are using the courts to bypass the collective decision that was taken. But we think it is completely legitimate that people take the necessary steps to enforce the strike vote, and if that means picket lines, we think it is a completely legitimate means of doing so.”

As a result of this relatively innocuous explanation of the position CLASSE had taken through democratic votes of its members, Nadeau-Dubois was charged with contempt of court. The plaintiff, Jean-François Morasse, a visual arts student at the University of Laval, had won an injunction allowing him to return to class despite his classmates having voted to strike. When he was unable to do so as a result of picket lines established by his fellow students, he sought to lay the blame on Nadeau-Dubois, claiming that he had "ordered" students to defy his injunction.

Justice Denis Jacques of Quebec Superior Court agreed, going so far as to say that Nadeau-Dubois had promoted "anarchy" and "civil disobedience" and that his actions would lead to "tyranny" in finding him guilty. Like many jurists in Quebec, Jacques has well documented ties to the Quebec Liberal Party.

After a lengthy delay, Jacques handed down his sentence today. Nadeau-Dubois is ordered to perform 120 hours of community service. The maximum penalty for contempt of court is a year in prison or a fine of up to $50,000. In a press conference this morning Nadeau-Dubois reiterated his intention to appeal, which he had announced as soon as the verdict was handed down. He will do so, he said, to clear his name but also to avoid the setting of a terrifying precedent.

“I did not advocate anarchy, I did not advocate disorder, I advocated accessibility to education and justice.” His words, he said, were not his alone, but “those of tens of thousands of people who believed in mobilizing against the increase to tuition fees.”

“In my eyes, this is about much more than just sentencing, it is about setting a precedent. A dangerous precedent, by which spokespeople of the student movement, the labour movement or the citizenry must from now on be afraid of speaking, for fear of ending up in prison.”

That he spoke for a movement, if not a generation, is clear from the outpouring of public support in the wake of his conviction. A spontaneous protest organized within hours drew thousands and solidarity demonstrations were held in other parts of Canada. A website set up to solicit donations to fund his appeal stopped accepting contributions after over $100,000 poured in in less than two weeks.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Nadeau-Dubois indicated that the excess funds would be used to pay legal fees of other students charged for their involvement in the strike (Over 3000 were arrested, and many face charges).

Armed with this significant war chest, Nadeau-Dubois will now proceed to an appeal which one legal source told rabble.ca he is likely to win.

It is the height of hilarity that a man who has dedicated his life to serving his community would be sentenced to "community service". The "time-served" jokes are almost too easy.

Leaving aside the legal arguments against his conviction, namely that he was not referring to a specific case, but articulating a broad philosophical point on the legitimacy of picket lines, one which constitutes a protected form of free speech, the conviction is flawed for several reasons.

For one, the plaintiff and the judge clearly do not understand the democratic nature of the Quebec student movement. Nadeau-Dubois was never a leader, he gave no orders and made no decisions. positions, including the one to support picket lines in the face of court injunctions, were made democratically by the membership of CLASSE. Nadeau-Dubois was merely the vessel for communicating those decisions. Hence the slogan of his fundraising campaign "This is not a judgement against Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, this is a judgement against the thousands of us who recognized ourselves in the Maple Spring".

Nadeau-Dubois' statement was not why students set up picket lines, they did so because they met in general assemblies and made the collective decision to do so. This decision posits the preposterous idea that students mindlessly did what Nadeau-Dubois told them to, and explicitly rejects the right of students to make collective decisions. This right, which has been the basis of student organizing in this province since the Quiet Revolution, is explicitly recognized in Quebec law (An Act respecting the accreditation and financing of students' associations, R.S.Q. c. A-3.01.)

If this judgement is not overturned on appeal, it will also represent a terrifying precedent for free speech and collective action in this province. Labour unions, social movements and other groups often choose to engage in civil disobedience. It's the reason we have the weekend, women and blacks can vote and children go to school instead of work. An unjust law must be challenged. That's how laws, and society, change.

This ruling would prevent representatives of groups engaged in civil disobedience from explaining to the population at large their reasons for doing so, for fear of being charged. It would prevent even the articulation of broad political or philosophical positions which could be drawn down to a reference to a specific situation.

In short, this decision, if upheld, would gut the right to free speech, dissent and social discourse in ways I think few people fully recognize.

That's why it is so critical that it be appealed, and that that appeal succeed. That's why Quebecers from all walks of life dug deep to defend Nadeau-Dubois. His conviction is our conviction, and his victory will ultimately be a victory for all Quebecers, whether they agree with his politics or not.


Follow @EthanCoxMTL on twitter for the latest on all things Quebec and social movement related.

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