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Supreme Court denies funds to bookstore contesting Customs censorship; ruling "a blow to free expression", says PEN Canada

(PEN Canada/IFEX) - The following is a 25 January 2007 PEN Canada press release:

Supreme Court of Canada's ruling against Little Sisters bookstore a blow to free expression, PEN Canada says

Toronto, 25 January 2007 - A ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada last week has effectively put an end to Little Sisters bookstore's two-decade long fight for its free expression rights.

On 19 January, in a majority decision the Court upheld a ruling from the British Columbia Court of Appeals denying advance funding for a suit by the bookstore against Canada Customs. The ruling said the case should not receive advance funding because it does not meet the test of having issues that relate not just to the litigant but to the general public.

The decision came after the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper cancelled a C$2.8-million-a-year (approx. US$2.368 million) Court Challenges Program in September 2006. The Trudeau-era program was intended to protect the constitutional rights of minority and other marginalized groups by helping to finance their court battles. Had the ruling been in favour of Little Sisters, it could have set a precedent in which Ottawa would have to cover legal costs for ordinary people who raise challenges under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision on two levels," said PEN Canada National Affairs Chair Christopher Waddell. "First, PEN Canada believes censoring and restricting freedom of expression in a free and democratic country is always a matter of compelling national interest, and is disappointed that the Supreme Court does not seem to share that view."

"It is particularly true when it is enforced by those such as Customs officers who have no knowledge, skills and training to play the role of censors. The court itself acknowledged that when it said in a previous decision in this case that Canada Customs systematically acted inappropriately in confiscating material entering the country."

"Second," Waddell added, "it is disappointing that the Court does not acknowledge that individuals and small enterprises need support to challenge the arbitrary power of the state when it is employed against them. It is an essential check on the abuse of power by authorities and one that PEN Canada believes should be supported by public funds."

The Vancouver-based Little Sisters caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender customers, selling sex toys, erotica, fiction and other material. Many of the books in stock are sex manuals, which have been frequent targets of Canada Customs censors.

The store says that, unless hundreds of thousands of dollars can be raised to continue the legal battle - it has already spent over a half-million - it has no other choice but to let Customs officials decide which titles appear on its shelves.

About PEN Canada

PEN Canada is a centre of International PEN that campaigns on behalf of writers around the world persecuted for the expression of their thoughts. In Canada, it supports the right to free expression as enshrined in Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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