Unmasking Bill C-309: Newly passed legislation threatens freedom of expression

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G20 protests in Toronto, 2010.

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Last week, Bill C-309, the 'Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identities during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act,' was given royal assent. Also known as the "Mask Legislation," the law makes it illegal to incite a protest wearing a mask or any face covering, including face paint.

Wearing any type of face covering while participating in a riot or "unlawful assembly" can lead to criminal conviction. Despite opposition from Civil Liberties activists, the law has moved maximum penalty from five years to ten years in prison if convicted.

The bill was put forward by Conservative MP Blake Richards of Alberta.

In April, the BC Civil Liberties Association stated that the adoption of Bill C-309 threatens constitutionally-protected freedoms of expression of political views: 

"Costumes and masks are lawful and they can be a powerful aid to unpopular speech," said Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BCCLA. "They can help foster the uninhibited expression of political views. The anonymity of a mask can protect people who are voicing their political opinions from punishment or reprisal by government, employers, family and others. In some cases the masks and costumes themselves may be a political message, such as wearing a polar bear suit to a climate change rally."

The BCCLA pointed out that the new law would also threaten the presumption of innocence, and potentially expose people to criminal penalties in an arbitrary way when they have no intention or knowledge that they are committing an offence. For example, the Association noted that in a large protest such as those recently seen in Montreal, police might declare the gathering illegal if a handful of people blocks away smashed a window, without hundreds or thousands of protesters realizing it. This would, the BCCLA stated, mean that anybody in that crowd wearing a costume or a mask would instantly, and unknowingly, have their lawful protest turned into a crime punishable by a prison term.

Steffanie Pinch of rabble.ca has a breakdown of five ways Bill C-309 will affect activists. krystalline kraus, also writing earlier in rabble.cahighlighted how Bill C-309 is fashioned closely in line with the Disguised with Intent law.

Mark Karlin of TruthOut stated: "there is no masking that the once seemingly civil liberal society to the north has become a handmaiden to U.S. pro-global corporate policy at the expense of a vibrant right to dissent."

Dylan Reid contrasted the modern moral panic around mask wearing to decrees in the 16th century in France.

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