Saturday, December 17, 2011

TORONTO STAR: Free speech is the key


You know that Section 13 censorship is screwed when even the Toronto Star is calling for it to be scrapped!


Free speech is the key

Is a new era of freer speech about to dawn in this country? Canadians can only hope. We’ve lived with fetters for far too long.

In Ottawa, Parliament is debating a bill by Conservative MP Brian Storseth to erase obnoxious sections of the Canadian Human Rights Act that unduly restrict free speech in the name of silencing hate mongers. At the same time the Supreme Court of Canada is re-examining hate speech jurisprudence in a case stemming from Saskatchewan’s equally restrictive provincial rights code. And Federal Court is taking its own independent look at the federal act.

All this is reason to hope that the chill that has settled on our Charter right to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression over the past few decades is about to thaw.

The Canadian Human Rights Act, for example, prohibits publishing via the Internet “any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” That can draw fines of up to $10,000 plus heavy damages. That’s a damper on spirited public discourse. The act can be interpreted to cover stereotyping and defaming, as well as hate-mongering. There’s no need to prove intent. Evidence can be accepted that would not stand up in court. And guilt doesn’t have to be established beyond doubt. All this puts an unreasonable burden on anyone unlucky enough to be hauled on the carpet.

Some provincial codes are no better. In Saskatchewan, publishing material that “exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity” of groups such as gays or lesbians can also draw harsh penalties. Belittles? Affronts the dignity? How can that be measured, let alone defended against? British Colombia’s code has its own problematic prohibitions.

Most Canadians have no sympathy for hate mongers. But an unwarranted, creeping chill is being cast over free speech, absent any real problem. Human rights commissions should concern themselves with discriminatory behaviour, not discriminatory opinions. It’s time to reaffirm free speech.