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A person walks from the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2013. A Toronto lawyer is teaming up with the Constitutional Rights Centre Inc. to challenge the legality of the Prime Minister’s latest appointment to the Supreme Court. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
A person walks from the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2013. A Toronto lawyer is teaming up with the Constitutional Rights Centre Inc. to challenge the legality of the Prime Minister’s latest appointment to the Supreme Court. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Union can videotape picket line, Supreme Court rules in privacy case Add to ...

The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a portion of Alberta’s privacy legislation, saying it violated a union’s right to free speech by blocking its ability to videotape workers crossing a picket line.

Legal observers say the unanimous decision on Friday could have far-reaching implications for unions, businesses and the manner in which courts balance competing rights to privacy and free expression.

The Supreme Court gave the Alberta Legislature a year to rewrite the province’s Personal Information Protection Act, which it said restricted the union’s right “to communicate and persuade the public of its cause.” It said the restriction was not justified by the legislature’s goal to provide individuals with greater control over their personal information.

Similar legislation exists in British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and at the federal level. Those laws will likely have to be revisited, too, legal experts said.

In declaring the Alberta law unconstitutional, the court said it “has long recognized the fundamental importance of freedom of expression in the context of labour disputes.” Picketing “represents a particularly crucial form of expression with strong historical roots,” the court said.

Civil libertarians hailed the ruling. “It’s a tremendous victory for freedom of expression in the context of trade unions,” said Lindsay Lyster, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The court did not say that a union’s filming activity will at all times be permissible, Ms. Lyster said. However it ruled that Alberta’s privacy statute went too far by elevating the picket-crossers’ right to privacy above all other interests.

“The court recognized that the right to strike is a fundamental right under the Charter,” said constitutional lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo of Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish LLP in Toronto, who represents unions in continuing challenges against federal back-to-work laws.

The decision could also signal in which direction the court will lean in a coming challenge to a Saskatchewan law denying the right to strike of government workers deemed “essential,” Mr. Cavalluzzo said.

Daniel Glover, a lawyer with McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, said the ruling could have implications on fundamental rights far from a picket line.

For example, the ruling could strengthen the hand of businesses that end up in disputes over their right to collect private information, such as a retailer that faces a challenge for the way it video-records its store to catch shoplifters, an activity allowed but restricted by privacy legislation.

“To protect your business in that way is another rational objective of taking a record in a public place,” Mr. Glover said. “And I think this decision would bear on that kind of activity.”

The dispute at the heart of the case dates back to a 305-day strike at the Palace Casino at the West Edmonton Mall in 2006. Both the union and a management-hired security firm videotaped and photographed the picket line at the casino’s front entrance. Union signs warned that pictures of workers crossing the line could be posted online.

An adjudicator with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta initially ruled the union had violated Alberta’s privacy law, but that ruling was overturned by a judge and then by the Alberta Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision.

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