Stratford Today: Open letter: reaching out to Stratford City Council in regards to ‘free speech and its disregard at City Hall’

A recent post is entitled:

Strange events in Stratford: Stratford residents’ comments that led to city hall ban were ‘innocuous,’ lawyer says – May 9, 2024 CBC article

The post refers to what can be characterized as strange happenings – and, indeed, the cessation of regular business – at Stratford City Hall.

By way of a follow-up to the previous post, I share the following text of a recent letter to the editor at Stratford Today.

A June 21, 2024 Open Letter at Stratford Today reads:

LETTER: Open letter to Stratford Councillors

Reader reaching out to council in regards to ‘free speech and its disregard at City Hall’

Letter to the Editor

StratfordToday received the following Open Letter from resident Robert Roth:

Dear Stratford Councillors

I have tried to reach you all in different ways, but every avenue has been blocked. My request to speak directly to council was refused outright. My attempt to speak at the Finance and Labour Relations Sub-committee on June 18 was abruptly halted while I stood at the podium.

Given the frustrations I have encountered, I am appealing to you individually with this open letter requesting that you withdraw the applicability within the council chambers of the Respect in the Workplace Policy.

Some people have asked me why I chose to appear before the sub-committee June 18 rather than council as a whole. The answer is simple. I was denied my request to appear before council.

Moreover, I was also told by the clerk’s office that I could only talk about the policy generally and could not talk specifically – at either the council or committee level – about the recent banning of some citizens from the council chambers and other public buildings. I was informed via email that citizens are not allowed to question such City Hall actions because they are ‘administrative matters.’ I quote from the last of three warnings delivered by the clerk.

“From your follow-up communications it appeared you were intending to discuss the actions taken by the City with Council which as indicated on several occasions is not a matter before Council/Committee/Sub-committee. I can appreciate that you disagree with this position but as the Clerk I do not have a mechanism to list this portion of your delegation request on a Council, Committee or Sub-committee agenda as it is an administrative matter. (Tatiana Dafoe, MA {she/her}, City Clerk, Corporate Services, Tuesday, June 11, 2024, 11:57 a.m.)

Such muzzling of a citizen’s right to challenge public policies and processes is a travesty.

Staff authority is council-delegated authority. And with delegated authority comes delegated accountability. They are the flip side of the same coin. Hence, every decision made by City Hall – whether by council or senior staff – is a political decision. But I don’t blame staff. The buck stops with you, the councillors.

It is profoundly disingenuous, undemocratic and dangerous to a free society to shield City Hall decisions from public scrutiny and accountability simply by slapping the label of “administrative matter” on profound actions such as banning people from the council chambers.

Pulling an ‘administrative’ rabbit out of the political hat does not make the hat disappear. These decisions are political.

Below is the aborted address I had planned to deliver to the sub-committee on June 18:


Let me introduce myself. I am a Stratford native and retired journalist. My career includes positions with the Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, CBC radio and various other media.

Holding a Master’s Degree in Journalism, I have also lectured extensively in journalism, communications and political science at Carleton, Algoma and Laurier universities.

Some of you, however, will remember me as the former editor of Inside Stratford-Perth, and as a founder and editor of the Stratford Gazette.

All of that, combined with my Reserve service with the Royal Canadian Regiment, has made me a passionate proponent of free speech.

I am here today to ask for your recommendation to council that the Respect in the Workplace Policy not be applied to public meetings in the council chambers. The tenets and terminology of that policy undermine the preeminent principle of free speech – the underpinning of our democratic system of government.

First and foremost, the council chambers is not a simple ‘workplace.’ And it should not be disrespected or denigrated as such. It is a Hall of Democracy with specific legal, moral and democratic traditions and obligations that soar far above the parameters of a simple ‘workplace’. People don’t elect their “workplace.”

In a public forum, the sanctity of free, unfettered democratic discourse is paramount.

I quote the rationale for your Workplace Policy directly from the mayor’s statement on the city’s website.

“… We have an obligation to protect City employees, Councillors and members of the public from disrespectful or inappropriate comments or actions in our workplaces. Behaviour that is hostile, offensive, humiliating, demeaning, derogatory or defamatory will simply not be tolerated.”

Similarly, the policy, itself, says action can be taken regarding “an interaction or event deemed unreasonable, inappropriate, or vexatious.”

Words such as ‘inappropriate,’ ‘unreasonable’, ‘offensive’, or ‘vexatious’ are so subjectively far-reaching that they can be used to ban virtually anything you simply do not want to hear.

Outside of a courtroom, the common English synonym for vexatious is ‘annoying’. Should free speech be banned simply because you are annoyed by it? That’s what your policy says.

Although Stratford-born and raised, my journalism and academic careers have taken me to several locales. I have been elected four times to municipal councils in two different Ontario municipalities – the Town of Aurora and the Township of Charlottenburgh. So, I know something first-hand of public service. And I know something of ‘hostile, offensive and “vexatious’ delegations.

Indeed, when confronted by my hostile and offensive constituents, I could have demanded more ‘respect’. I could have insisted that the people who slighted me be banished from my sight. And I could have drawn up a policy enabling such an ouster of taxpayers.

But democracy is more important than my ego. Democracy is more important than my hurt feelings.

Democracy is more important than melting like a snowflake just because I’ve felt the heat of a few hostile, unflattering words.

In this calling, you need a thick hide. You don’t sign up for the army if you’re afraid of gunshots. And you don’t sign up for public service if you’re afraid of pot shots.

I’ve heard it said in council that “words can hurt.” Clearly, I come from a different generation. Our motto was: ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me’. What ever happened to that old, British, stiff upper lip? It has curled down into the pursed lips of feigned fragility and exaggerated victimhood – the new handmaidens of censorship.

We live in a strange era now where contrived timidity allows anyone to shut down speech they don’t want to hear by simply calling it ‘unsafe’ or ‘harmful’ or ‘traumatizing’ or ‘triggering’.

Such terminology needs to be denounced for what it is – poorly veiled, passive-aggressive bullying. Its sole intent is to strangle debate, choke the breath out of free speech and bury dissenting opinions in a graveyard of imposed, unchallengeable, one-way thinking.

Words are not hurtful. Words are not violence. Words are not unsafe. Words are the building blocks of free speech and free speech is the sacred foundation of democracy.

Does being told at a public meeting, “Roth you’re a lousy politician” cause humiliation and show disrespect? Perhaps.

But what is more disrespectful, what is more humiliating, is the loss of our democratic freedoms.

Hearing a few bad, offensive words is a small price to pay for living in a free country – and that country exists because it is buttressed by the widest possible latitude in free speech.

It’s easy to believe in speech that is innocuous or gives us a pat on the back. But it is only when we are prepared to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – and defer to a principle much bigger than ourselves – that we understand our moral obligation to put up with some offence.

That is the noble sacrifice that distinguishes public servants from public rulers – and democrats from autocrats.

Curtailing profane or obscene language – such as hurling racist or gender-based epithets – is one thing. Banning words that are merely annoying is quite another. That’s overkill. Your policy is overkill.

Section 14 of your Procedural Bylaw enables you to deal with obscene language and unruly behaviour in the council chambers. You don’t need the over-the-top Workplace Policy here. It’s unreasonable, inappropriate, and vexatious.

Let people have their say. Challenge speech. Correct it. But don’t ban it.

Restricting discourse by trying to overly sanitize language is “offensive” to free speech. Handcuffing people with such subjective terms as ‘inappropriate, hostile or vexatious’ is a tool of tyranny, not a device of democracy.

Let me cite the celebrated case of Bracken versus Fort Erie that went all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal. I draw primarily on the summary by Andrew Monkhouse of Monkhouse law.

The Plaintiff, Mr. Bracken…was a frequent presence at the Fort Erie Town Hall, where he regularly and loudly expressed disapproval of the municipal government’s decisions. After staff complained of ‘bullying’ by Mr. Bracken and alleged his presence made them feel ‘unsafe’, the town’s Chief Administrative Officer issued a trespass notice banning Mr. Bracken from Town Hall. Mr. Bracken ignored the notice and was arrested. He challenged the arrest under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Court acknowledged that Mr. Bracken “can be confrontational, loud, agitated, and excitable. He is a large man and some people find him intimidating.”

The Court ruled that while Mr. Bracken may have been loud and even intimidating, he was never threatening, let alone violent. Thus, his conduct did not justify a trespass order.

The Court accepted that Mr. Bracken’s conduct made Town staff feel unsafe, but held that “a person’s subjective feelings of disquiet, unease, and even fear” do not override freedom of expression.

That is the very point I am trying to make. Thin skins, hurt feelings and wounded egos are not grounds for terminating free speech. But the Respect in the Workplace Policy tries to do just that – bury free speech under an avalanche of vague, subjective, restrictive, discourse-discouraging verbiage.

I repeat – the council chambers is not a workplace – it is a public forum – where we encourage, not discourage – the widest possible latitude in speech – even speech that is hostile or vexatious. People have a right to be angry, and express that in a robust, agitated fashion – as the court has ruled.

It is the overreach in the Workplace Policy that should be banned from council chambers, not disgruntled taxpayers.

Therefore, I ask the committee to recommend to council that the Respect in the Workplace Policy be withdrawn as it applies to public council meetings.


When sub-committee chairman Mark Hunter halted my presentation on seeing the ‘banned’ Mr. Sullivan in the public gallery and declaring him ‘unsafe’, I asked the chairman three times what made Mr. Sullivan unsafe. I received no answer. I saw no danger in Mr. Sullivan, only a man politely and quietly sitting in the audience exercising his democratic right to hear the public proceedings of his local government.

In my view, firing salvos of ‘unsafe’ at a sitting duck from behind a camouflaged blind of non-substantiation is hardly sporting, let alone ‘respectful’. People deserve an explanation.

If Mr. Sullivan is unsafe or dangerous, why have the police not arrested him? Because they know Mr. Sullivan is not dangerous and that the council has no legal right to ban him. They are also aware that the courts have ruled that mere feelings about being unsafe do not trump free speech. There needs to be material evidence of danger. Obviously, there is none or the police would act.

The logic of council’s actions further unravels when you appreciate that the ban imposed on Mr. Sullivan expires on July 3. So, on July 2, he is still ‘unsafe’, but on July 3 he suddenly becomes ‘safe’ and can attend council meetings again. Councillors, what do you expect to happen in that 24-hour period between July 2 and July 3? How will Mr. Sullivan magically transform into a ‘safe’ person – will he be disarmed during the night, will he morph like a caterpillar into a butterfly, will the Good Fairy touch him with her wand, will the Pope give him absolution? You people are behaving ridiculously. In reality, nothing changes. And that alone exposes the big lie.

Clearly, none of this is about safety. It is about punishment – a ‘sentence’ of banishment imposed by a kangaroo court for daring to challenge certain council policies and behaviours, including well documented, multiple violations of the Municipal Act by hiding from the public in illegal closed meetings.

Councillors, when you have to shut down every meeting because you don’t like to see someone’s face in the public gallery, it’s clear you did not think this through very well. If you ban more people and they show up, are you just going to close down every council meeting forever? This is the preposterous path you have concocted. You are making our city a laughing stock.

Councillors, your position is so devastatingly illogical and indefensible that it is difficult to believe that a group of educated people could subscribe unanimously to this bizarre course of action. You are so afraid of criticism that you would actually shut down the city to prevent it.

Is there not one sensible person among all of you who will speak up publicly against this nonsense and defend our democracy and the public’s right to criticize government?

I await your reply.


Robert Roth,
Stratford, Ont.

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