The appeal of a Prince Albert nurse, who was fined for a critical Facebook post about her grandfather’s long-term care home, could have broad implications on free speech according to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (CLA).
This week, a Saskatoon judge reserved the decision on the appeal of Carolyn Strom who was found guilty of professional misconduct by the Saskatchewan Association of Registered Nurses (SARN) and fined $26,000.
The case captured national attention around the question of freedom of expression and the power of professional regulatory bodies to discipline members in their private lives.
The issue raised a particular red flag for the B.C. CLA, which was granted intervener status to make a presentation to the court in the appeal. The association’s role is to ask the court judge to consider the framework of any decision while balancing rights and liberties.
In an interview with 980 CJME prior to the appeal earlier in January, Jay Aubrey, counsel for the association, explained the case could set a legal precedent for the scope and power of all professional regulatory bodies across the country.
“We’re not there to advocate (for) Ms. Strom, we’re not there to advocate against Ms. Strom, we’re there to speak to the issue that concerns us, and that is freedom of speech,” Aubrey explained.
The red flag, in this case, was seeing the nurses’ union taking disciplinary action against a member for expressing opinions in her private life. Aubrey said the association is concerned about the control over freedom of speech and the possibility of this case having a chilling effect for other professionals compelled to speak out.
Aubrey pointed out that professionals have insider knowledge which allows them to give important information to the public about possible reforms that may be needed or issues they see.
“Through professional regulation, when you stifle that kind of critical speech that’s critical of the profession, you’re really risking other professionals looking to that decision and saying well ‘if so-and-so is disciplined for criticizing their profession I don’t want to be the next so-and-so, so I’m going to withhold my criticism,’” Aubrey commented.
She argues this can have a negative impact on fair public debate over issues.
“In a rigorous democratic society with a lot of public debate on issues of public importance, we need that insider knowledge, we don’t want that kind of insight suppressed that’s really, really important to the dialogue,” Aubrey added.
The civil liberties association also pointed to the concern over the proper scope of any professional regulatory body to discipline a member for something they do in their private lives while off-duty for work. Aubrey explained it is still important for regulatory bodies to discipline members for legally-defined “reprehensible conduct” outside work, but there should be a balance.
Counsel for the nurses association argued the fine was justified because Strom was identified as a nurse, violated the privacy of her grandparents as patients, and should have complained through proper channels.