I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine on Wednesday, February 4, concerning the alleged misuse of parliamentary equipment and services by the hon. member for Ahuntsic.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Notre-Dame-De-Grâce-Lachine for raising this important matter, the hon. member for Montmorency-Charlevoix-Haute-Côte-Nord and the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice for their contributions and the hon. member for Ahuntsic for her statement.
In raising this question of privilege, the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine explained that on Monday, February 1, she had received on her House of Commons BlackBerry an email from the member for Ahuntsic, which appeared to have been sent to all members of the House.
According to the hon. member, the email "contained text and images supporting and glorifying three organizations that the federal government has deemed to be terrorist organizations". In fact, she characterized some of these as constituting anti-Semitic propaganda.
The member argued that the dissemination of this email was a clear misuse of parliamentary equipment and services. Noting that the hon. member for Ahuntsic had indicated that she had not viewed all the images, the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine argued that it is the duty of every member to ensure that they do not intentionally or unintentionally expose members of the House to this kind of material.
The hon. member for Notre-Dame-De-Grâce-Lachine went on to say that the misuse of parliamentary services in this manner constituted a violation of her privileges as a member of Parliament. In making her arguments, she drew to the Chair’s attention a ruling given on what she believed was a related question of privilege raised by the former member for Saskatoon-Humboldt, Mr. Pankiw, on February 12, 2003 in the House of Commons Debates, pages 3470 and 3471.
For the information of the House, I should say that that ruling concerned a mass email survey originating in the member’s office that had been blocked by various government departments because it disrupted their systems.
I have carefully reviewed the interventions made by all hon. members in this case and it seems to me that the crux of the issue here is whether the actions of the hon. member for Ahuntsic in any way impeded the hon. member for Notre-Dame-De-Grâce-Lachine in the fulfillment of her duties as a member of this House.
House of Commons Procedure and Practice, at page 52, reminds us that "individual Members cannot claim privilege or immunity on matters that are unrelated to their functions in the House." Thus, unless it can be demonstrated that the actions complained of were closely linked to a parliamentary proceeding, the Chair cannot intervene.
Having reviewed the ruling invoked by the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine in support of her argument, I have concluded that the ruling focused on the right of the member to seek information in the context of parliamentary proceedings, but I have not found in it the procedural grounds for a finding of prima facie privilege in the case now before us. I did, however, find that at that time I had enjoined all members to heed the guidelines regulating the use of their email accounts.
These guidelines, which I have again consulted, state categorically that members "are responsible for the content of any electronic messages sent using their account", and that account holders "will not use their network accounts for accessing data or participating in activities which could be classified as obscene, harassing, racist, malicious, fraudulent or libellous".
As I noted in a ruling involving the Internet given on June 8, 2005, at page 6828 of the Debates, the use of new communication technologies has ramifications that affect members in the performance of their duties. One important consideration members must take into account is that communications via the Internet and email may not be protected by privilege and may expose members to the possibility of legal action for material they disseminate.
It is not, however, the role of the Chair to monitor the contents of emails and other electronic communications that members send and receive, nor is it possible or desirable to do so. That responsibility falls to members themselves.
In rising to address the House on February 5, 2009, the hon. member for Ahuntsic acknowledged that she should have viewed all of the material in the links included in her email before sending it. Having now done so, she admitted that she found the material to be hateful propaganda and condemned it, and she apologized to the House and to all members for having sent the email in the first place. The hon. member for Ahuntsic then stated that she would be more vigilant in future and assured the House that such a lapse on her part would not happen again.
Having reviewed the facts of this case, the Chair cannot find that the privileges of the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Lachine have in any way been violated by this unfortunate incident, although there is no doubt that she and other members were offended by the material they received.
In addition, by the admission of the hon. member for Ahuntsic, the House of Commons guidelines on the appropriate use of email were not respected in this case. However, in view of the unequivocal apology by the hon. member for Ahuntsic, the Chair believes the matter is now resolved and will consider the matter closed.
I thank the House for its attention to this matter.