Canada Supreme Court upholds hate speech laws

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Canada [official website] ruled [judgment] Wednesday that limitations on free speech with regards to hate speech are constitutionally valid. Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [text], every Canadian is entitled to "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." This provision is limited by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code [PDF], which imposes specific prohibitions on publication and expression of speech "that exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person or class of persons on the basis of a prohibited ground." The court stated that such limitations were demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, and that the law appropriately balanced the fundamental values underlying freedom of expression with the competing Charter value of commitment to equality and respect for group identity and the inherent dignity owed to all human beings:

the benefits of the suppression of hate speech and its harmful effects outweigh the detrimental effect of restricting expression which, by its nature, does little to promote the values underlying freedom of expression. Section 14(1)(b) of the Code represents a choice by the legislature to discourage hate speech and its harmful effects on both the vulnerable group and on society as a whole, in a manner that is conciliatory and remedial. In cases such as the present, the process under the legislation can provide guidance to individuals ... so that they can continue expressing their views in a way that avoids falling within the narrow scope of expression captured by the statutory prohibition. The protection of vulnerable groups from the harmful effects emanating from hate speech is of such importance as to justify the minimal infringement of expression that results from the restriction of materials of this kind.
The ruling came in the case of activist William Whatcott, who was originally fined $17,500 for distributing anti-gay pamphlets.

Maintaining an appropriate balance between limiting hate speech and respecting freedom of expression remains controversial. Following the release of an anti-Islam film in September, which incited riots throughout the middle east [BBC report], several countries have been scrutinizing exactly how far the freedom of speech should go. In February, JURIST Guest Columnist Felix Treguer, Policy and Legal Analyst at La Quadrature du Net, discussed [JURIST comment] the "judicial guerilla war" in France being waged on "hateful" Internet content, unduly stifling free speech. In November an independent UN expert urged countries to combat hate speech on the Internet [JURIST report], while simultaneously protecting freedom of speech.

 

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