We Elect Trustees: We Can Vote Them Out Too

Posted April 19, 2018
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

Barry Neufeld is a man with many opinions – but, not everyone thinks he should be permitted to express them. Mr. Neufeld is an elected trustee of the Chilliwack, BC school board. He believes that the school board's new sex education curriculum is bad for kids. He is particularly upset that it teaches about gender identity and transgender people. He says that Jordan Peterson is his hero.

So what? you may ask. Aren't people permitted to express their views, no matter how disagreeable others may find them? The BC Teachers Federation doesn't think so. They and another education union have filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Commission in which they allege that Neufeld has created an unsafe workplace and exposed trans people to hatred.

The big question here, I believe, is whether an expression of opinion by an elected official (school trustees are elected in BC) can, in fact, have the effect alleged in the complaint. Mr. Neufeld is not a classroom teacher, nor does he set curriculum. The province does that.

Should he be subject to a human rights complaint or are there other ways to deal with the expression of an elected official? Last I looked, quite a few elected officials are in the habit of saying objectionable things. Mr. Neufeld is certainly not the first, nor will he be the last school trustee to voice a prejudice. I am certain that every place where school trustees are elected, some have been found to say things that others wish they had not said.

In general, school principals make decisions about hiring and firing of teachers. So, Mr. Neufeld is unlikely to have the power or influence to affect the job security of teachers who may identify as trans. He is also unlikely to interact on a continuing basis with students in the schools, which means that his views will not likely reach them, unless they seek out his Facebook site or other media where he has chosen to express himself.

Mr. Neufeld identifies as a religious person and says his views on gender identity are religiously based. Like everyone else in this country, he has the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. But, as most of us are aware, there a some very grey areas around these freedoms. None of our freedoms is absolute. Each is subject to “reasonable limits.” But what is reasonable and who gets to say?

Should human rights commissions be the adjudicators of what is reasonable when it comes to expression? Some provinces say no. They have enough to do dealing with complaints about acts of discrimination, without interfering with freedom of expression.

It is very easy to say that one person has been offended by another person's expression. It is quite true that one person's expression can cause another to feel sad, undervalued, humiliated, angry, or virtually any unpleasant emotion you can imagine. But is that enough to qualify as a harm to one's rights? Does any of these negative emotions prevent a person from access to employment, accommodation, or other services? Nowhere is there a guarantee for anyone to be free from offense or from emotional pain. Yet, there is a such a thing as a poisoned, hostile or toxic work environment. This generally means a work place where one is subject to persistent harassment and/or discrimination and prejudice which interfere with one's ability to perform the required work.

Do Mr. Neufeld's words and posts create this kind of work environment for LGBTQ employees and students? The human rights commission will make that assessment. But whatever is decided, as people who live in a democracy, we are not without ways to oppose the expression of elected officials we feel are failing to live up to their obligations.

If schools are concerned that Neufeld could create an atmosphere of fear in the workplace or the classroom, they can ask him to stay away. Schools can exclude anyone they have reason to believe poses a threat. This would include parents, community members and even teachers and students. In fact, Mr. Neufeld has agreed to stay away from schools until the complaints against him have been resolved. Is that good enough?

If not, the voting public can and should campaign against the election of any school trustee they believe is not properly doing her or his job. The voting public is also fully capable of finding better candidates to run for school trustee. They can write letters to editors, speak to media, and use social media to get their views into the public eye. In short, using democratic rights, demanding apologies, and criticizing opinions are effective ways to deal with objectionable communications. Censoring opinions of elected officials is ineffectual, anti-democratic, and threatens our cherished freedoms.