Giving somebody the finger is a vulgar, inherently provoking way of expressing extreme disapproval–but should it be viewed as a criminal act? A court in Canada recently addressed that question, and found that, to the contrary, flipping someone off is “a God-given, charter-enshrined right that belongs to every red-blooded Canadian.” You can read the court’s decision here.
The case arose in the context of a neighborhood dispute that turned ugly, on a quiet street where relations clearly had become so poisonous that seemingly everything has become a provocation. One set of neighbors, the complainants in the case, lived in a house equipped with an array of video cameras that they used to keep an eye on the neighborhood, including the accused, a schoolteacher who was the father of two young girls. The complainants also kept a written log of the accused’s activities.
The story begins on March 25, 2021, when kids watched by their parents were playing on lawns and in the street in the aftermath of COVID lockdowns. The complainants drive by, too fast and too close to the children, according to the parents nearby. There is a brief interaction and the complainants call the police, who come to the neighborhood but make no arrests. The complainants call the police again on the following days and record additional supposed incidents in their neighborhood log, all of which are meticulously described in the court’s opinion. Things finally come to a head several weeks later, when another confrontation occurs, the accused drops an f-bomb and gives one of the complainants the finger, and is then arrested for harassment after the complainant calls the police again.
After reviewing the video and testimonial evidence, carefully assessing the credibility of the witnesses, and making numerous findings of fact, the court concludes:
“To be abundantly clear, it is not a crime to give someone the finger. Flipping the proverbial bird is a God-given, Charter enshrined right that belongs to every red-blooded Canadian. It may not be civil, it may not be polite, it may not be gentlemanly.
“Nevertheless, it does not trigger criminal liability. Offending someone is not a crime. It is an integral component of one’s freedom of expression. Citizens are to be thicker-skinned, especially when they behave in ways that are highly likely to trigger such profanity – like driving too fast on a street where innocent kids are playing. Being told to “fuck off” should not prompt a call to 9-1-1.”
In short, our neighbors to the north expect people to be a bit tougher when confronted with crude gestures. Part of protecting the right to free speech involves protecting unseemly speech, like the upraised middle finger. In Canada, at least, that right is protected.
And let’s all be glad we don’t live in that dysfunctional neighborhood.