Latest test of Canada’s hate-speech laws

supremecourtSupreme Court of Canada, Ottawa | Kevin Morris

The Supreme Court reserved judgment on Wednesday regarding the case of a Saskatchewan man, William Whatcott, accused of anti-gay hate speech—the top court will issue a written ruling in the future. The Supreme Court appeal, brought by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, is focused on photocopies that Mr. Whatcott distributed in Regina and Saskatoon 10 years ago.

In 2002 Mr. Whatcott had been found by a tribunal to be in violation of Section 14 of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, which prohibits speech that “exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles, or otherwise affronts the dignity [of an identifiable group].” In his defence, Mr. Whatcott made the distinction between homosexual conduct and gay identity, and the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal agreed and overturned his tribunal conviction.

Is it not appalling that a provincial legislature can pass a law making it an offence to ridicule, belittle, or affront the dignity of an identifiable group? Has the Saskatchewan legislature become so captured by the intolerance of political correctness it has lost its collective common sense? Let’s hope our top court has not suffered similarly and will strike down this vague piece of silly legislation.

In 1990, the Supreme Court judged the federal human rights law against hate speech to be a reasonable limit on the Charter right to free expression. As far as I can tell, the standard used was a definition of hate as “unusually strong and deep-felt emotions of detestation, calumny and vilification.” Take note that almost all the terms used in this definition are synonyms of libel and slander, which are already covered by our criminal code.

Additionally, the legal definition of hatred has been refined in human rights law (by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal) with an eleven-point checklist of “hallmarks of hate.” As far as I’m concerned, the only point worth protecting groups from is number 11, “Calls to take violent action against the targeted group.” Libel and slander laws should take care of the rest or send the case to a proper court with charges under the Criminal Code of Canada.

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to us all freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media. Section 1 then restricts the granted freedoms by making them subject “only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

I contend that suppression of expressions of contempt, ridicule, belittlement, or affronts to dignity cannot fairly be considered reasonable limits that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Freedom of expression is far too fundamental a right to be so easily restricted. Without freedom of expression, other rights are virtually meaningless.

Political correctness is stifling our democracy. In our over-reaching attempts to protect certain groups, we are abandoning too many others to the clutches of capricious tribunals and vote-hungry legislators.

Let us hope the Supreme Court will return some sense of sanity to our so-called hate-speech laws—and won’t keep us waiting too long for its decision.



© Russell G. Campbell, 2011.
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The views I express on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of political parties, institutions or organizations with which I am associated.