Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday April 13, 2020.
After flip-flopping on basic information about COVID-19 and expecting to be cut some slack for it, the federal government is now proposing legislation that might punish any Canadian for doing just what they first did.

Liberal minister Dominic LeBlanc told CBC News that he's already been in discussion with cabinet members, including Justice David Lametti, to bring in some form of legislation to tackle online misinformation regarding COVID-19.

"Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it's not a quick solution, but it's certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government," LeBlanc told CBC News.

It's hard to believe that out of all the COVID-19 related problems the feds are dealing with, this would warrant a spot on the agenda anywhere near the top. One has to wonder why it even entered their minds at all.

But the Liberal idea already has fans from across the aisle.

"This is not a question of freedom of speech," NDP MP Charlie Angus told CBC News. "This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it's through troll bot farms, whether (it's) state operators or whether it's really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc."

To that extent that there is a real problem, the government will need to articulate specific examples of misinformation, explain what tangible harms have been caused and why federal laws are the solution. They failed to adequately do this last summer when they wanted to bring in similar legislation to regulate speech during the fall election and that episode left many Canadians with the impression the Liberals were simply looking to use the law to curtail speech they didn't like.

It's hard to see why the Angus "conspiracy theorist cranks" example warrants a response from government. There always have been and always will be conspiracy theorists and outlawing them will only pour fuel on their fire.

There is also the undeniable fact that there are aspects of COVID-19 that remain unknowns and the general public wants to talk it out, offering their theories and chatting between each other online. This shouldn't be against the law, whatever opinion someone temporarily settles on.

As for the scam artists, the emails and text messages people are receiving about false government benefits or bogus medicines, this is called fraud and there are already laws on the books to deal with these scoundrels.

Comment: Good point. If there are already laws in place to deal with fraud, why do they need to enact new legislation to deal with COVID-19 related fraud? Could it be that they're not actually after the scammers and fraudsters but actually want to have laws that can effectively silence those who are offering information or opinions that go against the mainstream narrative?

The government's biggest problem with getting public buy-in for any such laws though will be the fact that federal voices have themselves already been found guilty of what could be included in a broad definition of "misinformation".

It's widely known that Health Minister Patty Hadju, Dr. Theresa Tam and other officials have now done complete reversals on many aspects of this illness. They previously told Canadians that the risk remained low and that COVID-19 did not spread asymptomatically. Then there was their insistence that flight restrictions and widespread usage of face masks did not work, only for them to turn around and voice opposite policies.

Everyone understands that there's a steep and frequently changing learning curve when it comes to getting a firm handle on all the aspects of COVID-19. But if the public is expected to cut officials some slack, the government should extend the same courtesy to the public.

Whether they understand it or not, Canadian officials are facing a delicate balance right now where they risk losing public confidence by being too petty and aggressive in enforcing social distancing measures. Adding misinformation laws likely isn't going to help with that.