Speaker won't rule on freelance journalist's accreditation after Conservative MPs call tweet threatening

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota rises in the chamber July 22, 2020, in Ottawa. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld - image credit)
Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota rises in the chamber July 22, 2020, in Ottawa. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld - image credit)

The Speaker of the House of Commons said he will not weigh in on whether a freelance journalist should have accreditation to the parliamentary press gallery after he tweeted a comment Conservative MPs say risked provoking violence against politicians.

In a decision Tuesday morning, Anthony Rota also said he did not believe Conservative MP Garnett Genuis's ability to perform his duties had been impeded by the comments.

The incident started last Wednesday when Genuis quoted the band Queen while asking a question about inflation. The Queen reference was a dig at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was spotted singing Bohemian Rhapsody with members of the Canadian delegation, the weekend before Queen Elizabeth's funeral.

Dale Smith, a freelance member of the parliamentary press gallery, then tweeted that "Genuis tries to includes lyrics from 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in his question, and I cannot adequately tell you how lame it is. When horses are this lame, you shoot them."

The next day Genuis rose in the House on a question of privilege, arguing Smith's comments were "threatening" and beyond the bounds of normal political discourse.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

"Some would say surely he is joking, but the problem with so-called jokes implying threats towards public officials is that I, as the target of these comments, [am] somehow supposed to understand and be OK with a threat on the basis of someone's presumed intentions," the Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan MP said.

"And I'm just not OK with this."

Genuis said Smith's accreditation in the press gallery gives him access to West Block's halls. He called on the gallery to revoke those privileges.

A day later, Opposition House Leader Andrew Scheer said in a social media post that his party did not want Smith thrown out of the gallery — but it did want his security access restricted.

Accreditation 'a privilege — not a right'

But on Wednesday in the House, Genuis did not mention Smith's security credentials — only his accreditation in the parliamentary press gallery. Genuis quoted at length from the press gallery's statement of principles and practices, drawing attention to the fact that the gallery considers accreditation to be "a privilege — not a right."

He then asked the Speaker to protect the rights of members and asked the press gallery to do the same.

Today, Rota said he reviewed the facts and did not find Genuis's duties had been impeded by the tweet and therefore did not find it was a valid question of privilege.

Dale Smith/Twitter screengrab
Dale Smith/Twitter screengrab

"The chair takes this situation very seriously. Elected officials are regularly subject to comments on social media that go beyond criticism and political debate. Some comments are sometimes extreme and occasionally even violent," reads Rota's decision.

"Parliamentarians, their staff and those who report on parliamentary activities should seek to raise the level of public debate and resist the temptation to trivialize or oversimplify important issues, as it can occur on social media."

Rota said he will also not interfere with the rules governing the press gallery, adding "the chair is convinced that press gallery officials will continue to uphold among its members its usual high standards of professionalism."

Genuis responded saying that the Speaker's ruling "puts the ball in the Press Gallery's court, and its now up to them to determine their response."

"They have to decide if this is consistent with the standards they have set for their members," he tweeted Tuesday.

Last week gallery president Guillaume St-Pierre said the organization wished to distance itself from Dale's comments, noting that "we all, journalists and politicians alike, hold the responsibility of promoting healthy and professional public debates."

St-Pierre condemned intimidation in all its forms, but he also added that membership in the gallery was not a determination made by politicians.

"The gallery is a decision-making body independent of political interference and must remain as such."

Smith said last week he owes 'no apology' 

In a blog post Thursday morning, Smith called the tweet an "unoriginal joke" and denied he was insinuating Genuis should be shot.

"I did no such thing and I owe him no apology. If anything, he owes everyone an apology for subjecting us to his attempt to be clever with the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody," he wrote.

Smith then accused the Conservatives of playing "the intimidation game."

"If you are critical about anyone on their team, they declare that you are biased, even though you are critical about every team," he wrote.

"They howl and moan, in the hopes that you either apologize and retract, and then they know that you're weak and that they can silence you through these kinds of tactics."

Poilievre denounces threat against his wife

The controversy comes as reporters — particularly journalists of colour — report a rise in harassment and abuse.

For weeks, multiple journalists have been sharing publicly a series of emails they've received containing specific, targeted and disturbing threats of violence and sexual assault, along with racist and misogynistic language.

Politicians also have come under attack in recent years. MPs from both sides of the aisle condemned an incident last month that saw Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland loudly accosted in Alberta by a man who repeatedly yelled profanity at her and called her a traitor.

The RCMP confirmed Monday that it is looking into a threat of sexual violence directed at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's wife, Anaida Poilievre. Poilievre denounced the threat from far-right political commentator Jeremy MacKenzie and said his office contacted law enforcement about the matter.

"This kind of garbage has no place in Canada. No one should face this abuse," Poilievre said in a statement. "People can attack my politics, they can call me names, they can protest my ideas and what I stand for. But threatening my wife and family is appalling and I will not tolerate it. Leave my family alone."