Fight to repeal hate speech law brings together unlikely allies
Rebecca Lindell, Global News :
Photo Credit: Bloomberg News Files , Bloomberg News
OTTAWA – A bill to repeal part of Canada’s most contentious hate speech provisions, which has brought together unusual allies, is one step closer to becoming law.
Conservative MP Brian Storseth’s private member’s bill that would repeal the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s power over hate messages disseminated online is likely to survive its next test. The bill is scheduled to be voted on for a second time on Wednesday, and while it is a private member’s bill, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson endorsed the proposed legislation last November. It will still have to be voted on once more in the House of Commons and pass through the Senate before it becomes law, but the progress is encouraging for its diverse supporters.
“This is a dead bill,” said Marc Lemire, one of the people to face a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act. “It shouldn’t be on the books and it will be a fine day in Canada when it is finally removed.” Section 13 of the Act makes it discriminatory to spread online messages that could expose an identifiable person or persons to hatred or contempt.
Lemire said the current legislation allows interest groups a risk-free way of attacking political opponents by censoring free speech, something he believes isn’t necessary or good for democratic society. “We don’t need the government looking over our shoulder looking at what we say and whether it is correct or not,” he said.
A well-known and outspoken figure in Canada’s far right, Lemire had a Section 13 complaint filed against him in 2006 for posting anti-Semitic and anti-gay material on websites. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that Lemire did violate the Act, but found the section unconstitutional.
The case is now before the Federal Court of Canada and Lemire has found an unlikely ally in his fight to see the bill repealed, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. It’s an organization known for defending human rights, equality and diversity, The CCLA’s general counsel Nathalie Des Rosiers said it is important liberty and equality are protected for everyone. “When you lose freedom of expression you lose the ability of having the outside voice being forcefully heard,” said Des Rosiers.
“The good thing with freedom is you have so many different people who have an interest in it,” said Lemire of the unlikely alliance.
The problem with Section 13, according to Des Rosiers, is the definition of hate messages is too broad and blurs the line between hate and vigorous disagreement. “Every group that is a little bit concerned about censorship looks at this and says the possibility of this being abused to counter some critical speech is wide,” she said. “You can easily get into full-fledged censorships.”
University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon, who was hired by the commission to study Section 13, argues it is simply not the right vehicle to defend people from hate messages. “I personally believe that it is entirely right and appropriate that there be laws that restrict extreme hate speech,” said Moon, who defines such speech as advocating, justifying or inciting violence. Moon said the Criminal Code and its hate speech provisions are the best place for complaints to be dealt with, adding police are better suited to investigating extreme speech than individual complainants. The other major concern is the commission investigating a complaint is a violation of free speech in itself, Moon said. Since 2001 the commission has accepted 74 Section 13 complaints. Of the 17 that were actually heard by the tribunal, 16 found that the respondents breached the act. The maximum fine is $10,000.
Des Rosiers said a better move would be to spend money and energy targeting acts of discrimination, instead of fighting speech, something she calls a losing battle. “It hasn’t stopped the level of vitriolic comments on the internet,” she said. “It has done very little good and has the potential to do a great deal of harm.”
The NDP opposes Storseth’s bill, but Wednesday’s vote occurs on the same day as the final vote on legislation to kill the gun registry, ensuring there will be strong Conservative showing in the House of Commons. Liberal Justice critic Irwin Cotler supports amending instead of repealing Section 13 in a bid to prevent vilifying speech while protecting people from hate speech. Both the Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Canada are examining cases involved hate speech.
The court cases coupled with the political momentum leaves Lemire with one prediction: “It’s really only a matter of time before this law is gone.”
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