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Court orders minister to unblock Rebel News founder on former Twitter

Ezra Levant argued Steven Guilbeault was violating his constitutional rights by blocking him
Outspoken political commentator Ezra Levant arrives at the Law Society of Alberta in Calgary on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault must unblock Rebel News founder Levant on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, under the terms of a court order. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault must unblock Rebel News founder Ezra Levant on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, under the terms of a court order.

The order issued by Federal Court Justice Russel Zinn ends an action Levant filed two years ago claiming the Liberal minister was violating his constitutional rights by blocking him.

Levant argued that his inability to see or respond to Guilbeault’s posts on the platform limited his ability to engage in debate on matters of public concern.

Lawyers in the case wrote to Zinn on Sept. 7 consenting to an order that would resolve the matter.

The order says the parties acknowledge that Guilbeault and the federal government “do not admit and in fact deny any liability in respect of the allegations made in the application.”

However, under the order, Guilbeault must ensure his X account unblocks Levant immediately and for as long as the minister remains a member of Parliament.

The court also ordered the government to pay $20,000 toward Rebel’s legal expenses.

At issue in the case was whether Guilbeault’s X account should be considered a personal social media account or an official government one.

In an affidavit filed with the court, Treasury Board Secretariat official Tracey Headley said Service Canada confirmed that the account in question was not an official government of Canada social media account.

Levant argued in the initial notice of application to the court that the Guilbeault account had all the trappings of an official, state-run account, adding the content was public in nature.

The notice said the freedom of expression protected by the Charter includes the derivative right to access government information where it is necessary for meaningful expression on the functioning of government.

A federal filing in the case points out that in various Twitter posts while Guilbeault was Canadian heritage minister, Levant called him a “kook,” a “thug” and possibly “the stupidest cabinet minister in Ottawa.”

Levant noted in his submission that Guilbeault chose to block him rather than use the social media platform’s less intrusive muting function, which allows a user to remove another user’s posts from their timeline without unfollowing or blocking that account.

Rebel News says it has a generally conservative world view, billing the outlet as a supporter of freedom and antidote to the mainstream media.

On the Rebel site, Levant declared the case’s outcome a blow for freedom of speech.

“It might sound like a small thing, but if Guilbeault can cut us off from receiving news and other information from the government, what else can he cut off?”

Guilbeault’s office had no comment on the court order.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, who has followed the case, said while the order does not affirm a constitutional right, it sends a strong signal about the state of the law.

“We do know that government officials are using these platforms all the time for what are official statements and basically the business of government, and that should be accessible to anyone,” Geist said in an interview.

“It shouldn’t be open to a minister or their staff to decide who has access to publicly available information on a particular platform.

“I understand that there is abuse online that no one, minister or otherwise, should have to face,” Geist said. But given X’s mute function, “I think it becomes harder and harder to justify outright blocking of individuals.”

The Treasury Board Secretariat had no immediate comment on the court order’s implications.

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