Point • Counterpoint: Hate speech or free speech?
Point: Anti-gay speech is hate speech
While I am certain that most, if not all, Canadians can agree on a common understanding of freedom of thought, belief and opinion, which are protected rights under section 2b of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, figuring out exactly what falls under the category of “freedom of expression” is considerably more difficult to pinpoint. Unlike the United States, Canada has specific laws outlined in the Criminal Code regarding what can and cannot be said, in an attempt to cultivate and maintain a more open, tolerant and multicultural society, which I believe has been relatively successful.
Despite the overall benefits of having these laws in place, there are those who push the limits, testing the boundaries of their Charter-given rights.
In 2001 and 2002, Bill Whatcott distributed anti-gay flyers in Saskatoon mailboxes. These hate-filled flyers that claimed that all homosexuals* are sodomites and child molesters, stating that “children will pay the price in disease, death and abuse if we do not say “no” to the sodomite desire to socialize your children into accepting something that is clearly wrong.”
Not surprisingly, in 2005, he was brought to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which rightfully ruled that the pamphlets devalued the lives of gays and lesbians through these expressions of hate and as a result, increased the likelihood of violent confrontation. Whatcott was ordered to pay a total of $17,500 in damages to four plaintiffs.
After failing to have the ruling overturned at the Saskatchewan Court of the Queen’s Bench, Whatcott and his lawyer, Tom Shuck, took the case to the provincial Court of Appeals. The court overturned both decisions, acquitting Whatcott of all charges. Recently, however, the SHRC has brought the Court of Appeals decision to the Supreme Court. Their decision will forever affect the way hate speech crimes are judged in Canada, directly affecting the rules regarding freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is subject to “reasonable limits.” These reasonable limits are established based on the level of threat, criminal code sanctions, truthfulness, etc. Section 319 of the Canadian Criminal Code specifically speaks against the public incitement of hatred, protecting people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, colour, gender, sexual orientation and disability, especially if it may lead to a “breach of the peace.” The attacks made by Whatcott toward homosexual individuals clearly fall under this category since they threaten that, without some sort of action to quash “sodomite desire,” “children will pay the price in disease, death and abuse.” This call to action could guilt parents who subscribe to Whatcott’s beliefs to take any and all steps to do what they think is necessary to protect their children. If that’s not an incitement of hatred, what is?
Another problem is the accusation that all homosexuals are “sodomites” (which is, quite frankly, nobody’s damn business, regardless of sexual orientation) and “child molesters.”
Past court decisions have ruled that statements that characterize members of a target group as predators of the vulnerable, causes of social problems, evil by nature, deserving segregation or eradication or declaring that a group is a powerful menace like “Jews are liars, cheats, criminals and thugs” are examples of hate speech, and deserve sanction by courts and/or human rights tribunals.
Whatcott’s pamphlets, which wrongly state that “sodomites [which he defines as gay men] are … three times more likely to sexually abuse children” are examples of statements that target homosexuals as predators.
Based on these two important factors, it can easily be argued that Whatcott was not within his rights to have distributed these flyers and distributing any similar documents in the future should be banned.
*Note: I used the term “homosexual” because it is used by Whatcott and media reports of this case, fully acknowledging that it is a label that many individuals with same-sex interests and/or tendencies do not identify with, myself included, due to its medical and clinical connotations.
Counter-point: Anti-gay speech is free speech
Bill Whatcott is under threat of having the Supreme Court reinstate a $17,500 fine issued by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC) and later removed by a Saskatchewan court. Whatcott was handed that hefty fine when he was charged by four homosexuals, who alleged the material constituted hate speech.
Whatcott should be allowed to make controversial statements about homosexuality because free speech is a fundamental aspect of democracy. The purpose of free speech is to protect those with unpopular opinions, not those in the majority.
We should examine Whatcott’s expressed opinions to see if there are grounds for fining him.
First, Whatcott expressed opposition to the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in Canada. This should be allowed, because complaining about a certain aspect of society is at the heart of democracy.
David Arnot of the SHRC has tried pointing to legislation against child pornography to justify limiting the speech of Whatcott, yet Arnot makes a conceptual mistake. Whatcott is talking about what he thinks the attitude of society or the laws of our country should be, which is not like producing/possessing child porn, but more like saying that child porn should be legal.
I am not saying that Whatcott’s views are equivalent to those of supporters of legalized child porn. Rather, I am saying that speech about a topic is different than certain types of action based on your beliefs. Such actions can be limited in a democracy, such as producing porn or violently attacking homosexuals (not that Whatcott supports violence), but the speech should be allowed.
Other materials distributed by Whatcott denounced teaching about homosexuality in school. There are no grounds for fining a person based on what they think belongs in curricula. Besides, opposing such teaching in schools is not necessarily hateful — you might just think that schools are inappropriate venues for such discussion.
Whatcott’s material also described homosexual acts as sinful, but describing acts as evil is permissible in democratic society. When I was in Madrid for World Youth Day, an apparently non-Catholic man told me that Pope Benedict is evil. Most people reading this do not think that it should be illegal to call Pope Benedict evil. So I ask: why should it be legal to denounce a person as evil while illegal to call a certain action, irrespective of the person, evil?
Whatcott loves the sinner, but hate the sin. He does not attack people or lie about them, but rather is sharing his ethical views. Some people have far more radical ideas about ethics, such as infanticide-defender Peter Singer, yet, for the sake of liberty, we let them say controversial things.
Other things that Whatcott has distributed are a statistic that actively homosexual men tend to die prematurely and a copy of an advertisement from a homosexual newspaper in which an adult male took out a personal ad for a minor.
Unless Whatcott violated copyright laws, there are no grounds for prosecuting him for this since statistics and reporting on advertising are legitimate expressions of free speech. I find no grounds for fining Whatcott for hate speech. Whatcott has obviously offended people, but that is bound to happen with freedom of speech.
To allow people to express their opinions, you need to accept that you cannot use the state to stop them from offending you.
While there are reasonable limits on free speech, it’s not clear that hate speech is one of them. All indications are that Whatcott is a peaceful, honest man concerned about a social issue.
He has not demanded that those who disagree with him be silenced by the law. Whatcott would like to debate the place of homosexuality in Canada, and should be permitted to do so.