Saturday, January 28, 2012

Conservative MP Storseth asks for support on Section 13 repeal

Storseth asks for support on Section 13 repeal

By William Stodalka | Cold Lake Sun

MP Brian Storseth recently sent out a letter to Cold Lakers and other residents in the Westlock - St. Paul riding asking for their support on his Private Member’s Bill repealing Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Under that Section, media and Internet articles that others deem offensive will have to face a human rights commission.

However, this section has come under criticism by Storseth and others who say it stymies freedom of speech. “The policy is flawed and poses a risk to Canadians’ freedom of speech,” said Storseth in the letter. “Freedom of speech is too precious to keep under the thumb of censorship.” Storseth said in an interview that he sent the letter to inform members of his riding about what he was doing in Parliament.

Section 13 of the Human Rights Act was first created in 1977 to help defeat hate speech, but since the law was passed, has come under criticism from civil rights organizations, national media, and authors such as Noam Chomsky.  Around 2008, Storseth said he introduced a motion for the Justice Department to re-examine the law. Later that year, a Liberal MP, Keith Martin, proposed a Private Member’s Bill similar to what Storseth proposed, but that bill did not make it to law.  In 2011, Storseth proposed the current private member’s bill against Section 13.  Because a private member’s bill does not come from the governing party’s caucus, or always have the governing party’s complete approval, however, most never make it into law.

But Storseth is hoping his bill, now named Bill C-304, will pass by the end of the spring session of Parliament.  “I think it’s important to raise these types of issues and to bring this type of attention to them,” said Storseth. He later added, “There’s not much use to having freedom of religion or freedom of assembly if we don’t have freedom of expression to go with it.” Because of his stance, Storseth has received national coverage and endorsements from publications such as the The Toronto Star and the National Post, along with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

CCLA director Cara Zwibel said that she believed that Section 13 puts a “chill” on freedom of expression. Zwibel noted that while the CHRC often deals with cases where human rights are infringed, such as a person denied an apartment because of their race or creed, Section 13 forces people to “put on a different hat” and act as something different entirely. “We’re concerned that the language around hate speech is very open to interpretation,” she noted. “What’s hate speech to one is not to another or just a genuine expression of their opinion.” She said she hoped the bill would succeed.

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said that he believed that “there has been an acknowledgement that changes to the Criminal Code would be necessary in addition to passage of the (private member’s )bill.” While Fogel said he supports repealing Section 13, he believed Storseth’s bill was “not entirely adequate as an alternative to Section 13.”

Others have pointed to different possible solutions to Section 13. The Canadian Bar Association, an organization of Canadian lawyers, said that it supports Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, but that it should be amended to take care of some of the concerns people have with it, such as allowing defendants the right to see their accuser and giving the CHRC more opportunity to dismiss cases that they deem frivolous.

But Storseth said he believed that this was not good enough, and that the law should be scrapped entirely. “I think it’s beyond tinkering,” he said. “There’s too many fundamental flaws in Section 13.” Zwibel agreed. “I don’t think parliament tweaking the legislation will help in terms of protecting freedom of expression,” she said. “It’s been through the courts on a number of occasions. I think if parliament re-opens that, there will be another series of cases before the courts to deal with that, and that won’t really help freedom of expression.”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission spokesman Craig Carson said that the Commission “is following the debate with interest,” but did not elaborate further. However, in an op-ed by Canadian Human Rights Commissioner David Langry, he wrote that if Section 13 were repealed, “perhaps Parliament should make it easier for police to lay a (Criminal Code) charge based on evidence.”