One of the right-wing Canadian blogosphere’s great causes is their opposition to human rights tribunals, mostly because of the hate speech provisions these human rights tribunals sometimes take up. (To hear them complain, you would think human rights tribunals spend the majority of their time censoring people, when in fact most cases heard by these tribunals concern basic workplace equality. Not that they like that either, mind you, but.) Their current hobbyhorses are Mark Steyn (who was found innocent at his Ontario tribunal because hate speech is more than just the simple, dimwitted racism Steyn exudes, but never you mind that apparently in Steyn’s case the system worked – it’s the principle of the thing) and now an Alberta minister named Stephen Boissoin, who wrote a mean letter-to-the-editor about how he hates them fags.
The text of the letter can be found here – I refuse to endorse the schmuck even backhandedly by reproducing it in full, and loath as I am to give Kathy “I Proudly Admit I Am A Bigot” Shaidle traffic, I really couldn’t find anybody less objectionable who was willing to publish it. Which tells you something, really, and the gleeful insouciance with which they republish this dreck tells you something else.
(They’ll claim to be defenders of free speech, but I don’t see ’em republishing, say, excerpts from Catcher In The Rye or Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Anarchist’s Cookbook or any other famous books frequently banned. Heck, if they want to go at it from a conservative angle, they can always reprint a portion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, frequently the target of misguided liberal censorship. But no, they’re desperate to republish bigoted crap.)
I’ve given hate speech law a lot of thought, precisely because although I applaud its aims, I do have concerns about its practical application. Those who know me know that I generally favour freedom of expression as a rule. I don’t need to go into the reasons why I favour freedom of expression; these should frankly be self-evident to any reasonable reader and if not, go read some Thomas Paine or something.
But as a society, even before we ever considered tabling hate speech laws, we recognized that freedom of expression could be used to harm, and acted appropriately. We don’t recognize threats as speech (despite what some Metafilterites might think about this). Likewise, consider defamation, and our slander and libel laws. As a society, we understand that malicious and deliberate harm to one’s reputation through falsehood is that which should not and cannot be allowed, lest we inappropriately empower those with access to greater voice in our society. (And yes, I recognize that the Internet has managed to even the playing field somewhat in this regard, but it has not created a situation where libel and slander laws are outdated. Rupert Murdoch still has a bigger megaphone than me and can use it for great harm.)
But slander and libel law can only be applied to the defense of individuals. What happens when language is used to slander or libel groups? And before you say “well, isn’t most racism just opinion and therefore not validly applicable to groups,” let me excerpt a piece from Boissoin’s rant.
From kindergarten class on, our children, your grandchildren are being strategically targeted, psychologically abused and brainwashed by homosexual and pro-homosexual educators. Our children are being victimized by repugnant and premeditated strategies, aimed at desensitizing and eventually recruiting our young into their camps. Think about it, children as young as five and six years of age are being subjected to psychologically and physiologically damaging pro-homosexual literature and guidance in the public school system; all under the fraudulent guise of equal rights.
Is that just opinion? Let me put it another way.
From kindergarten class on, our children, your grandchildren are being strategically targeted, psychologically abused and brainwashed by Chris Sims. Our children are being victimized by Sims’ repugnant and premeditated strategies, aimed at desensitizing and eventually recruiting our young into their camps. Think about it, children as young as five and six years of age are being subjected to psychologically and physiologically damaging pro-homosexual literature and guidance by Chris Sims; all under the fraudulent guise of equal rights.
If I said that in seriousness about Sims, he’d be quite able to bring a defamation tort against me. I could assert a fair comment defense, but to do so I would have to prove that the statement is based on proven fact.
Taking this back to Boissoin, there’s a number of claims in just those few sentences that are highly questionable. “Physiologically damaging” likely qualifies as verifiably false. “Psychologically abused” and “brainwashed” toe the line; Boissoin might argue them to be mere invective, but abuse and brainwashing are extreme language that carry specific connotations along with them.
But hate speech law isn’t just about defamatory claims (although they do play a large element). It’s also about eliminationist rhetoric, the attempt to use speech to not only defame a group but also to dehumanize them – which in turn encourages violence against them, because if your opponent is seen as less than human, violent reaction against them becomes easier to justify. Encouragement of violent behaviour is seen – rightly – within our legal systems as invalidly qualifying as “speech” and the protections granted to speech, because despite what Bigot Central might think, hurting people you don’t like has no valid purpose within a just society.
Kathy Shaidle and her ilk have no problem condemning such rhetoric when it’s spouted by fundamentalist Muslim extremists, but apparently Stephen Boissoin is a cause celebre for writing
Come on people, wake up! It’s time to stand together and take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the wickedness that our lethargy has authorized to spawn. Where homosexuality flourishes, all manner of wickedness abounds.
It’s time to start taking back what the enemy has taken from you.
Those are direct calls to action, nothing less, and the Shaidle wing will pooh-pooh them by saying that Boissoin hasn’t explicitly said “hey, go kick a fag to death.” This lackspittle defense relies on the belief that all men who would work evil through speech are morons. The implicit call to arms is there, and Boissoin’s choice to not limit action (“whatever steps are necessary”) is quite deliberate.
And that is the crux of hate speech law in Canada – we look to dampen defamatory and inciting rhetoric, recognizing through both history and common sense that some speech is not worth contesting in the court of public opinion, because speech is dangerous – indeed, far more dangerous than any mere weapon. It’s a natural extension of defamation law, a concept which has been with us for centuries. As a society, we choose to recognize that although the freedom of speech is important, and indeed vital to the health of a functional democracy, that absolute freedom of speech by its nature will conflict with other rights, such as liberty or freedom from persecution, which are equally important in Canadian constitutional law.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that human rights tribunals don’t require reform – they do tend to be somewhat patrimonious and they’re built with pre-Internet statute and are frequently outdated in their handling of cases. But that doesn’t mean the job they perform isn’t worth doing; it just means they need to do it better.
EDIT TO ADD: In comments, Joe Helfrich expresses his discomfort with hate crime law, which is a somewhat different kettle of fish than hate speech law. I fully disagree with the concept of hate crime law, which takes ordinary crimes and attempt to divine hateful intent in action to create a more punitive sentence; we have trouble enough in criminal law determining intent (indeed, the search for mens rea is the defining element of most criminal law trials) without going a step further and attempting to prove one’s motive.
That having been said, there’s a longstanding tradition in speech law that end effect is more important than original intent – if I libel you without malicious intent and you get screwed because of it, I’ve still committed libel regardless of me not intending to. Critics of this tradition have suggested it forces people to be more careful about what they say; proponents have suggested it forces people to be more careful about how they say it.