The Quebec government has introduced Bill 59, which sets out to combat publicly disseminated hate speech and speech inciting violence.
While noble in intention, the bill contains many of the problems associated with Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Parliament repealed that contentious provision two years ago to protect free speech from the reaches of a zealous bureaucracy that struggled to distinguish between hateful and offensive speech. Moreover, defendants lacked basic rights to due process, a speedy trial, access to an attorney and even truth as a defence. Critics of Section 13 pointed out then, as do opponents of Bill 59, that the Criminal Code already covers hate speech and ensures those protections under the law.
The context in which Bill 59 has come about is also essential to understanding the full extent of its danger. Jacques Frémont, director of the Quebec Human Rights Commission and driver of these legislative changes, explained in a 2014 speech that he intended to use his new powers against people critical of Islam. No other religion was referenced. Meanwhile, Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard brought the bill forward as part of his counter-radicalization program, implying in his remarks that one cause of Islamist radicalization is the existence of hateful speech against Islam.
Would prohibiting hate speech against Islam help to prevent radicalization?
The bill’s proponents might answer in the affirmative. First, otherwise disenfranchised Muslims could feel a stronger sense of belonging and loyalty to their home. Second, the Muslim community might feel more accepted in society and, therefore, more willing to report concerns to the police. Third, individuals angry about remarks critical of Islam would have recourse through a non-violent, legal process.
Perhaps unwittingly, this approach is premised on a doctrine about the dynamics of radicalization that benefits the radicalizers. Moreover, the arguments against Bill 59 are far more compelling.
First, Canada already welcomes people of every background and proscribes discrimination under numerous legal instruments. Banning “hate speech” – an undefined term in the bill – and entrusting the enforcement of this vague prohibition to an activist human rights commission would disproportionately infringe on Canadians’ right to freedom of speech, one of the fundamental cornerstones of a liberal democracy.
Second, Bill 59 would suppress legitimate viewpoints and concomitantly empower and embolden those sympathetic to an extremist Islamist narrative. Some very prominent moderate Muslim voices in this country have published articles in which they plead with policymakers not to allow their voices to be silenced by the bill. They note that those who speak out against honour killings or the death sentence for apostates and adulterers as problematic aspects of a radical Islamist worldview could be brought before a tribunal, charged an exorbitant fine and publicly shamed as hate speech offenders.
Third, we might assess Bill 59 within the framework of a recent article in the Atlantic titled “The coddling of the American mind.” The authors of that piece examine the growing movement on college campuses to censor ideas and language that might adversely affect students’ emotional well-being. They find that a “culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers,” with an institutionalized fixation on micro-aggressions and trigger warnings, and the belief in having a right not to be offended, actually has the opposite intended effect on students’ mental health. (Micro-aggressions are seemingly innocuous actions or words that are nonetheless considered violent. Trigger warnings are to be issued by professors if course materials might generate strong emotion.)
Bill 59 could run the risk of similar problems across the province, fostering a culture of victimhood, divisiveness and acrimony, and rendering our society unable to engage issues critically.
In the face of public outcry, Couillard has conceded the bill may excessively chill free speech. Quebecers and Canadians must continue to speak out for their right to speak freely. The frenzy of a federal election cannot distract us from contesting legislation whose impact will be felt far beyond provincial borders.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.