Freedom of speech has always been on shaky ground in Canada. While many people claim to support this important right, they often smother it with stringent conditions and restrictions that makes speech anything but free.
In fact, a recent Ontario court ruling produced one of the most damaging blows to free speech ever seen in this country.
On Jan. 24, Judge Richard Blouin ruled that James Sears and Leroy St. Germaine – the editor-in-chief and publisher, respectively, of the controversial free newspaper Your Ward News (YWN) – were guilty of promoting hatred against Jews and women. Although the two men claimed their publication was nothing more than a satirical endeavour, the judge disagreed. “YWN repeatedly and consistently dehumanized Jews and women,” Bouin argued, and the paper’s proprietors “were fully aware of the unrelenting promotion of hate.”
The people who had been pushing for Sears and St. Germaine to be prosecuted, which included Liberal strategists Warren and Lisa Kinsella and Canada Anti-Hate Network chair Bernie Farber, were understandably elated. Farber, in fact, said this was the “kind of verdict that Canadians are going to rejoice in.”
No, they won’t – and they shouldn’t.
To be clear, I agree that Your Ward News is an awful publication. I’ve read it twice and I found the things written about the Kinsellas and others offensive at best.
My main concern, however, is the serious blow to free speech in Canada caused by using the Criminal Code to prosecute real or perceived hate speech.
As I’ve written before, free speech is the defence of ideas that are either objective or objectionable. We must be willing to support views that appear right to us, and tolerate views that seem wrong. This doesn’t mean we’re required to agree with different points of view, but we must always defend a person’s right to make their views heard in a non-violent manner.
Hate speech has always followed the same principle, long before the removal of Sec. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act – which, in my view, was something to cheer about if you truly support free speech.
People living in a liberal democracy are free to hate, whether we like it or not. The laws of our land cannot, should not and must not forbid any individual or group from feeling differently than, or even loathing, another individual or group.
This doesn’t mean we have to agree with other people’s views. We have every right to object to them, but we have to accept that they have the right to speak their minds.
Hence, people are allowed to hold the most vile and repulsive beliefs about any religious, racial or gender group in Canada and beyond. And yes, this includes Jews and women.
The one notable exception is when hate speech evolves from offensive words and personal beliefs, to the act of physical violence. It’s one thing to hate a person or group, but quite another to wish them bodily harm.
This fine line played a role in the first case against Sears and St. Germaine in December. It was based on a passage in the Summer 2017 issue of YWN, which read, in part, “there was the chance that some hothead who cares deeply about me and my family would lose it and do something illegal, like bludgeon the Kinsella’s to death.”
Judge Dan Moore ruled against the Kinsellas because the “plain and ordinary meaning of the words” didn’t constitute a death threat. With respect to the theory of reasonable doubt, Moore correctly said that, “Having considered all of the evidence I am unable to find that the threat to kill interpretation … is even the most likely interpretation, let alone the only reasonable interpretation.”
Hence, the recent court case against Sears and St. Germaine proved a salient point: critiques of hate speech are just as wrong-headed as critiques of free speech. This doesn’t a constitute victory, ladies and gentlemen. Rather, it’s an enormous loss to our personal rights and freedoms.