Giving the middle finger is a fundamental right, says judge

Imagine. Court of Quebec Judge Dennis Galiatsatos was so outraged by the case before him, a ridiculous neighbourly dispute gone awry, that he admits he had to resist the urge to write the decision in bold and in caps.

In an animated and colourful decision in R. c. Epstein, 2023 QCCQ 630, Judge Galiatsatos acquitted a Montreal man charged with criminal harassment, (s. 264(1) Criminal Code) and uttering death threats (s. 264.1(1) Criminal Code) towards his neighbour, who “weaponized the criminal justice system in an attempt to exert revenge on an innocent man for some perceived slights that are, at best, trivial peeves.”

[174] In the modern-day vernacular, people often refer to a criminal case “being thrown out”. Obviously, this is little more than a figurative expression. Cases aren’t actually thrown out, in the literal or physical sense. Nevertheless, in the specific circumstances of this case, the Court is inclined to actually take the file and throw it out the window, which is the only way to adequately express my bewilderment with the fact that Mr. Epstein was subjected to an arrest and a fulsome criminal prosecution. Alas, the courtrooms of the Montreal courthouse do not have windows.

Judge Galiatsatos vividly sets the scene over what took place in a Montreal suburb in the spring of 2021:

[2]  Picture the following scene:

A beautiful spring day. A quiet street in a small residential neighbourhood, just steps away from two elementary schools, a daycare and a park.

Up the road, a 4-year-old girl rides her scooter in front of her house, with three adults sitting on camping chairs in their driveway watching her. Said driveway is adorned with chalk drawings made by the child.

A few metres away, another gathering of 9 children, spanning ages 2 to 8. Smiles from ear to ear. Some have bicycles, some have scooters. All are wearing helmets. Other children are simply walking, playing, getting much needed fresh air. They are all under the watchful eye of their parents.

Nearby are balloons and decorations in front of a home. Some snow is still seen melting. This is after COVID lockdowns had kept kids cooped up inside for far too long, and while onerous curfews were still active. Finally, the kids could play – during the daytime – and interact with one another.

On the street, there are chalk drawings made by children depicting a birthday cake and spelling “Happy 5th”.

Around the corner, various other adults and children are walking on the street. Some are walking their dogs. Everyone is smiling. At a later point, a young father holds his toddler in his arms.

[3]  To most, this scene represents a blissful snapshot of a suburban utopia. Peaceful, friendly community life.

[4] Yet, to the complainant and his family, this is an unbearable nuisance. An affront on many levels. So much so, that according to the objective video evidence, they drive dangerously near the children as a way to protest their presence and express their discontent. That is the backdrop of this case. The complainants have a list of grievances against the accused, his family, his young children and the other neighbours’ young children. These grievances are nothing more than mundane, petty neighbourhood trivialities…

[5] To the complainants, the presence of young families outside it is a source of scorn and vivid resentment that ultimately spilled over into a criminal complaint against their neighbour. A school teacher. A caring father of two young daughters who committed no crime whatsoever. A man who has somehow been subjected to criminal charges for almost two years.

[6] This injustice ends today.

In a finding that will reassure Quebecers, Judge Galiatsatos held that it is not a crime to dislike a neighbour, and it is not a crime to express it. Nor is it a crime to give someone the finger. Rather,

[168]…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.

[169] 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.

Scorn aside, there is nothing funny about living with the spectre of being found guilty of criminal harassment and uttering death threats. As Judge Galiatsatos, the proceedings took a toll on the school teacher.

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