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Freedom of expression in classroom
May 10, 2002

In a recent Charter case involving a teacher’s right to free speech in the classroom, the Prince Edward Island Court of Appeal has ruled that a teacher’s Charter right to freedom of expression was violated when he was ordered not to show a potentially controversial documentary to students.

In Morin v. Board of Trustees of Regional Administration Unit #3, the teacher showed “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done” to another teacher’s grade nine class. The BBC documentary described the fundamentalist approach to religion in the United States. The school received a number of complaints from parents.

Concerned that the teacher would show the program in his own class, the school board prohibited him from showing it to students. The principal of the school considered that the tape was not age-appropriate and might have a negative impact on the children of fundamentalist parents in the school. The school board put the teacher on paid leave for the balance of his fixed term contract, and did not re-hire him.

The teacher filed an action claiming among other things that his right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated by the school board. The trial judge ruled that the teacher’s Charter rights were not infringed because the purpose of the principal’s decision was not to restrict the teacher’s freedom of expression but rather to create an effective learning environment for students.

In a seventy-six page judgment with one of three judges dissenting, the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court decision. It ruled that the teacher’s action was a form of expression captured under the Charter. Madam Justice Webber, writing for the majority, stated:

“Surely teachers engaged in their profession of teaching can’t be found to have no right to free expression, while advertisers do have such a right, and even prostitutes carrying out their profession have such a right.”

The majority rejected the school board’s argument that the teacher did not have a right to freedom of expression because the Board, through the school principal, had the right to control the school and its curriculum, and showing the video was a breach of that control. The Court noted that the primary purpose of the school’s act of forbidding the teacher to show the video was to restrict the teacher’s expressive activity. It rejected the notion that the restriction was put in place to create an “appropriate learning environment for students”.

It is important to note that the school board did not present alternative argument under section 1 of the Charter. Section 1 provides that Charter freedoms are subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. As a result, the Court did not consider whether the limitation was reasonable in light of the school board’s statutory authority to set curriculum and duty to ensure that a certain climate existed within the school. It therefore remains to be seen what the Courts will consider to be a reasonable limit on the freedom of expression of teachers in the classroom.

This case raises important questions about the rights of school boards to regulate what teaching materials are used and what is communicated by teachers to students in the classroom.

(Click here for link to judgment)