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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This is a good ruling, I think...

The case of William Whatcott brings together two of our favorite topics around here: abortion and freedom of speech. Whatcott, a nurse, had the bad sense to protest in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Saskatchewan. In 2004, this off-duty activity earned him two convictions of professional misconduct from a disciplinary committee of the Saskatchewan Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (SALPN.)

His punishment? A $15,000 fine and a 45 day suspension.

However, on January 16th, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, arguing  that disciplining Whatcott was not "rationally related" to SALPN's legitimate objective of upholding public respect for the nursing profession.

“There is no evidence that any member of the public thinks, or will think, less of nurses because of Mr. Whatcott’s behaviour,” Justice Jackson wrote. “In the absence of evidence, one way or the other, one might as easily hypothesize that licensed practical nurses are respected, as a general rule, not for what occurs during their off-duty hours, but for their direct activities in the case of patients.”

All in all, a good decision. Why should Mr. Whatcott's professional body be able to punish him for expressing his opinion in a legal manner while he was not even on the clock?

On the other hand... consider the actual content of Whatcott's speech:

Whatcott carried signs with pictures of fetuses, captioned “Planned Parenthood Aborts Babies.” He shouted phrases such as: “Planned Parenthood will give you AIDS”; “This place is the world’s biggest baby killer”; “Don’t let Planned Parenthood corrupt you;” “Planned Parenthood murders innocent babies”; and “fornicators will not inherit the kingdom”.

SALPN's definition of "professional misconduct" includes lying and making defamatory statements, because these are activities that might bring their profession into disrepute.  Whatcott's "Planned Parenthood = AIDS" comment is arguably false and defamatory. Shouldn't professional bodies be able to punish their members for telling outrageous lies?

Posted by Terrence Watson on January 29, 2008 | Permalink


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Professional bodies should have the power to take away the credentials of someone who exhibits signs of mental disorder. This guy has obviously crossed over to the other side. Forget the fine, just take away his access to people who need proper medical care.

Posted by: dp | 2008-01-29 1:36:49 PM

Wrong dp. You may disagree with him but there is no evidence that he "has crossed over to the other side". Also the so-called professional body has clearly overreached its mandate, since the rules should only apply to nurses on duty. Like all such so-called professional bodies, it is agenda-driven and meddles in politics where it has no business.

I agree that the fellow got carried away in his statements, but that happens when emotions take over reason. No matter he should be entitled to the right of free speech.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-01-29 2:22:28 PM

DP wrote: "Professional bodies should have the power to take away the credentials of someone who exhibits signs of mental disorder."

If that's the case, DP, you'll have to fire half of academia. Furthermore, being an obnoxious loudmouth about how you say something that is, on its face, true, is not a sign of a mental disorder. It is a sign of being an obnoxious loudmouth about how you say something that is, on its face, true, and therefore not defamatory.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-01-29 2:27:43 PM

I guess it wouldn't be a stretch to start screening people for religion or sexual preference would it.

I stand corrected Alain.

Posted by: dp | 2008-01-29 2:28:31 PM

Terrence wrote: "SALPN's definition of "professional misconduct" includes lying and making defamatory statements, because these are activities that might bring their profession into disrepute."

Only false statements are actionable, Terrence. Let's consider his statements one by one:

“Planned Parenthood Aborts Babies.” - Incontestably true.

“This place is the world’s biggest baby killer” - 110,000 abortions are performed in Canada each year. Hard to argue with this one.

“Don’t let Planned Parenthood corrupt you” - This is not a statement but an exhortation, and so is neither true nor false.

“Planned Parenthood murders innocent babies” - Are you saying the babies are guilty of something?

“fornicators will not inherit the kingdom” - This is a religious dogma. Not demonstrably either true or false, but freedom of religion and expression are Constitutionally protected.

Terrence wrote: "His 'Planned Parenthood = AIDS' comment is arguably false and defamatory. Shouldn't professional bodies be able to punish their members for telling outrageous lies?

From 0 to mach 1 in zero point zero seconds, Terrence. First you say that the statement is "arguably" false; then in the very next sentence you call it an outrageous lie. He is wrong inasmuch that it is not birth control, but promiscuity and other dirty habits involving bodily fluids, are the direct cause of AIDS. On the other hand, the advent of the pill ushered in an era of unprecedented promiscuity.

In any case, no professional body has any business setting itself up as a kangaroo court when a member says something that makes them uncomfortable. Unless I'm much mistaken, the employment contract does not contain a clause wherein Whatcott signed away his Charter rights, and if it did it would be null and void.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-01-29 2:46:56 PM

Hi Shane,

From the article:
"Whatcott’s statement that Planned Parenthood “will give you AIDS” is “blatantly false,” as were his statements describing the group as “baby killers” who corrupt young people, said the committee."

The committee seemed to believe these were "outrageous lies," or at least outrageous falsehoods. Are they? Well...

I'm split on this. In one sense, according to the law, Planned Parenthood is not murdering innocent babies. This is undoubtedly the direction SALPN was going in. A false accusation of murder is pretty outrageous. SALPN would hopefully treat a vegetarian member who went around accusing meat eaters of murder the same as it treated Whatcott, because, legally, the two cases would be equivalent. Legally, it's not murder to kill a fetus, nor is it murder to kill a cow.

I'm talking about how language should be interpreted _if_ we are to make sense of the disciplinary committee's decision that "Planned Parenthood murders babies" is a blatant falsehood.

At the same time, we know that when pro life individuals say "Abortion is murder," they're not making a claim about the legal status of a fetus. They're saying something about its moral status, if anything. If his language is interpreted that way, then what Whatcott said was at least not blatantly false.

The Court decided, wisely, to skip over the issue of the truth/falsity of Whatcott's statements.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-01-29 3:07:48 PM

Planned parenthood promotes promiscuity - the largest and best known reason for AIDS. Even their push for condom access everywhere and for everyone has increased the risk of Aids in the larger community.

Mr. Whatcott can probably teach a whole lesson , that ends with the conclusion he shouted on the picket line. He sees the direct results daily in his line of work.

That its an outrageous thing for them (PP)to have been doing all these years. People don't like to believe how outrageously callous they are about the results of their 'work'. Still, that doesn't make it less true. Anyone reading up on the literature put out by its founders, might even wonder if it wasn't intentional. (At least wonder!)

Posted by: lwestin | 2008-01-29 3:20:11 PM

At law, Planned Parenthood isn’t murdering anyone because a fetus is not considered a person under the law. At one time the fetus enjoyed this right, but it was removed at the behest of those to whom personal convenience was more important. However, just because the law says something isn’t so doesn’t make it true. Congress for the State of Indiana once tabled a bill setting the value of pi at 3.0; had it gone through, you would have seen a lot of collapsed bridges in that state.

Murder is defined as the killing of a human with malice aforethought. The fetus is alive and it is human; these are scientifically established facts. Legislators won’t acknowledge this because they don’t want to piss of an obnoxious minority who also won’t acknowledge it. Sort of how killing a black person in the postbellum South was rarely considered murder even though it most certainly was, because keeping society white and pure was thought to be more important than the truth. Find anyone with an agenda and you’ll often find the truth is pretty far down their list of priorities.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-01-29 3:21:43 PM


I agree, the court's decision makes perfect sense. I wonder, suppose he was identifying himself as a nurse? The story doesn't say, but I can think of plausible reasons he might do so. Perhaps to give himself some rhetorical credit as a health care professional?

It's interesting to wonder if the court might have ruled the other way, had he claimed that. The court seems to have left the truth or falsity of what he was saying up in the air, as it wasn't relevant. But if he'd brought his professional credentials into the picture, might they have had to address whether or not he really was telling "outrageous lies" when evaluating the merit of the disciplinary body's decision?

Just a thought. Or a question. I think I'd tend to err on the side of free speech, and let him continue to say whatever he wanted.

And yes, it would be interesting to see Planned Parenthood sue him.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-01-29 6:59:47 PM

Planned Parenthood doesn't have enough to sue him on. I really am tired of petty regulatory bodies acting like Supreme Court Justice wannabes. The difference, of course, is that real judges follow the law. These drumhead imitations just follow their own agenda.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-01-29 9:47:38 PM

Well TM "Shouldn't professional bodies be able to punish their members for telling outrageous lies?"

Canada needs more prisons then for those with non-accountable oversight bodies alone?

Lawyers and politicians still rank below even used car salesman in the last poll on trust that I read.

How about political appointees inside a bureaucracy?

Posted by: The LS | 2008-01-30 1:52:59 PM

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