Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Does Freedom of Speech allow Rejection of a Court's Findings?

In June I wrote about David and Collet Stephan being sentenced to jail for the death of their two year old son Ezekiel. David and Collet treated him with naturopathic remedies and did not respond to clear indications that Ezekiel was developing dangerous meningitis until it was too late. The judge acknowledged that they loved Ezekiel and were trying in their way to help him, but concluded that they did not have a right to choose their own beliefs over mainstream health care. He sentenced David to four months in jail, but allowed Collet to serve a three month sentence under house arrest.

The aftermath so far is fascinating. Both sides are appealing The "Crown" (Canada's term for the "state") is appealing the sentence as too lenient, on the following grounds:
 - The sentence is not proportionate to the gravity of the offence or to the degree of responsibility of the offender, and is unfit.
 - The Sentencing Judge gave insufficient weight to denunciation and deterrence.
- The Sentencing Judge underemphasized, or failed to give weight to, relevant aggravating factors.
- The Sentencing Judge overemphasized mitigating factors, or gave mitigative weight to factors that are not mitigating. 
- The Sentencing Judge misinterpreted the legal doctrine of wilful blindness.
"Wilful blindness"is a legal term referring to motivated ignorance. The Crown is alleging that the Stephans chose to ignore the obvious fact that Ezekiel needed urgent medical attention because of their cult belief in "natural" remedies.

The Stephans have appealed their conviction. A friend from Canada told m that the appeal is based, at least in part, on free speech grounds. According to my friend they argue that the judge's requirement that they post an unedited copy of his ruling on their website infringes on their right to freedom of speech. (I haven't been able to find the details of their appeal.)

David Stephan's two "letters from jail" (here and here) show him to be a principled believer in a false doctrine. He is convinced that he is taking a stand for justice, to protect other parents from intrusions of the state.

I believe, however, that the judge threaded his way between punishment and mercy in an admirable manner. The judge and jury concluded that David and Collet were guilty of failing to protect their son from preventable harm. From my reading of the media reports this was a correct finding. But the judge recognized that the Stephans were loving parents, acting on their longstanding beliefs. They meant well for their son, but they did him the ultimate harm.

The judge gave David, who he saw as the leader of the belief system, a short jail sentence, but allowed Collet to serve on home detention so that she could care for the children. I supported and continue to support his requirement that his findings be posted on the Stephan website. While the Stephans totally disagree with the findings, they have been convicted under the law. Their website promulgates the cult beliefs that led to their son's death, and could do the same in another family. Posting the judge's findings does not abridge their speech rights. They can, and will, continue to disagree the the judge and jury and to speak up for their false naturopathic doctrines. This is their right in a democratic society.

But if they persist in refusing to post the  judge's findings I would favor requiring Collet to serve her sentence in jail once David is out and could care for their children. I do not know the Canadian precedents for contempt of court, but it would seem that a substantial fine and an extended period of probation would be warranted.

I believe the Stephans deserve respect for the principled way in which they assert their beliefs. In their view they are standing up for truth and justice. David is careful to say that he discourages his supporters from anger or hatred. This is admirable. But in the democratic society of Canada, the Crown is the legitimate authority for ruling on the situation. If David can persuade the public to change the law, the situation will be different. But under the law, the judge has ruled correctly.