Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Canadian Supreme Court upholds anti-hate speech laws in case against Bill Whatcott

I'm quite pleased with this morning's ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada against Bill Whatcott's dissemination of hateful, anti-gay flyers in Saskatchewan in 2001 and 2002. Whatcott had been found guilty of breaking the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code's hate speech provisions and fined thousands of dollars in penalties. However, an appeal court overrruled that finding in 2010. The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in October 2011. I wrote about this case then.

Today's ruling is a great read. I hope the media editorialists who defended Whatcott's ability to publish and distribute these hateful flyers (one of which used the words "Kill the Homosexuals") take the time to read it and get educated about the harmful effects of hate speech.

The Supreme Court ruled today the Human Rights Code's ban on speech that exposes an identifiable group to hatred as valid. In so doing, it likely reinforced similar anti-hate speech provisions elsewhere in Canada's laws. The Court also ruled that other vague wording in Saskatchewan’s hate law, which bans speech that “ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of,” was constitutionally invalid.

The Supreme Court concluded that two of Whatcott's flyers constituted prohibited hate speech and he must now pay $7,500 of his original $17,500 in fines. In the judgment, Justice Rothstein writes: "Passages of these flyers combine many of the hallmarks of hatred identified in the case law...The expression portrays the targeted group as a menace that threatens the safety and well-being of others, makes reference to respected sources in an effort to lend credibility to the negative generalizations, and uses vilifying and derogatory representations to create a tone of hatred.”

The SCOC also awarded the Saskatchewan Commission "costs throughout, including costs of the application for leave to appeal in this Court."

In the past, I've argued that only speech that objectively "incites violence" against an identifiable and protected group should constitute illegal hate speech. The Supreme Court seems to argue that simply exposing such groups to "hatred" as they define clearly in the ruling is sufficient for finding the speech illegal. This is broader than my own definition. But I see the great wisdom in it. I support today's ruling. It will greatly instruct the ongoing debate about what actions governments may take to prevent the harmful and very real effects of hate speech in our free and democratic society.

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