Ontario lawyers recently got an e-mail from the Law Society of Upper Canada reminding them of a new policy. It requires them to write a statement of principles acknowledging their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion. What could be wrong with that? Quite a lot, say opponents of the policy – and they have a point.
The law society is a professional association, not a church. It oversees the conduct of lawyers, not their beliefs.
Many lawyers rightly object to being told what their principles should be or what world view they should promote.
The statement reads to them like a loyalty oath – take it, or you're a traitor.
One law professor is seeking an injunction to block the rule. Many others have written letters, posts and opinion pieces to object.
Requiring the statement was one of 13 recommendations that came out of a report on barriers faced by non-white lawyers.
The law society's e-mail instructs members: "You will need to create and abide by an individual Statement of Principles that acknowledges your obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in your behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public. You will be asked to report on the creation and implementation of a Statement of Principles in your 2017 Annual Report."
The statement is mandatory, although law society leaders have said they won't impose sanctions on holdouts, at least initially.
Those who back the new rule insist it does not limit anyone's right to free speech – heaven forbid.
But if it did, lawyer Jennifer Quito writes in the Law Times, "it would nonetheless comprise a reasonable and demonstrably justified infringement of this right."
The good that would come of it would far outweigh any damage.
She says the pushback against the new rule only goes to show that some lawyers don't accept that discrimination exists – why else would they raise such a fuss?
The law society should not count on the "personal opinions of non-experts in the field who state these barriers do not exist simply because they have not personally experienced them."
In other words, it's not that they have legitimate, sincere objections to a mandatory statement of principles.
It is that they don't recognize the reality of racism and the need to fight it. Their opposition to this perfectly reasonable, wonderfully progressive measure proves it.
There it is – the reason, in a nutshell, why opponents of the rule are so worried. Order everyone to swear allegiance to an agreed set of beliefs, however benign, and it is not long before those who object are being denounced as unbelievers.
If you don't profess undying loyalty to the revolution, you must be a counter-revolutionary.
If you don't renounce communism, you are un-American.
If you don't write a statement on equality, you must be a racist.
In fact, opponents of the law society's rule say they are as committed as anyone to equality and inclusion. They recognize the profession is not as diverse as it should be, a problem highlighted just last week when this paper published a much-discussed article, Black on Bay Street, by a woman who said she felt like an outsider in a big Toronto law firm.
They just don't like being told what to think. It's the principle of the thing – and it's an important one. Even with the best motives, it's not right to force people to recite a set of beliefs. It's a sure way to crush dissent, and no democracy can thrive without dissenters.
Lawyers in particular should be free of such pressure.
Defendants and other clients count on them to be impartial professionals.
As law professor Arthur Cockfield wrote in The Globe and Mail, accused individuals need "to be able to trust one man or woman, one person who is completely on his side against the vast resources of the state. We call this person a lawyer."
The law society has every right to make sure that lawyers are upholding ethical and legal standards. It has no business telling them what to believe.