The public’s right to know

The recent controversy in Hamilton about the proposal to establish a media policy at the Hamilton Police Board that will restrict the right of board members to speak to the media on board matters provides us with a valuable teachable moment.

Past and present members of the Toronto Police Service Board are especially invited to take due note.

Proponents of that restrictive policy are losing sight of a fundamental consideration. As members of the public, we have a right to be informed and to be able to form and express our own opinion, on all matters that relate to the operations of entities that belong to the public sector.

That right is guaranteed by the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is also based on the logical implication that taxpayers must have access to information on the activities of entities and officials paid for with taxpayers’ dollars. The notable exceptions to that right generally relate to state security, official secrecy and confidentiality, and to privacy issues.

Whenever the public’s right to know appears to clash with the principle of confidentiality and respect for the official decisions, discussions and policies of a publicly owned and financed entity, there is now a brief and eloquently stated lesson to guide us towards a decision that is rational and easily defensible.

Our lesson for this purpose is to be found in the editorial of the Hamilton Spectator newspaper published on June 8 under the headline “The Spectator’s View: Police board muzzle is ridiculous and insulting”.

While the lucidity of that ethically sound editorial speaks for itself, two arguments stand out. The first is that members of the board should be allowed to publicly state their views once they make it clear those are their personal views and not the official views of the board. The second is that it must be presumed that the public is smart enough to tell the difference between what constitutes an official position and what constitutes legitimate democratic discourse.

In that regard, some of us still have fresh in our minds the big “tantana” (excitement and tension) created last year when Councillor Michael Thompson made comments to the media  that were highly critical of the performance of the police and of then Toronto police chief Bill Blair.

Thompson was at the time vice-chair of Toronto Police Service Board. The board deemed his comments a potential breach of the code of conduct and referred them to the solicitor general for investigation. The councilor filed for a judicial review of the board’s decision but eventually both parties withdrew their respective measures.

In that case, whether or not one agreed with the comments by Thompson or with the virulence with which he may have made them, the issue remains that we should defend his right to speak to the media, and, through the media, to speak us on matters he deemed in the public interest.

We deserve to hear the various opinions on matters of public policy and to hear the reasons behind those opinions. This is the best way for us to arrive at our own informed opinions.