Free speech strengthened by defending those we find loathsome

This story is cross-posted from the Edmonton Journal.

CANADA – Freedom of speech is such a slippery concept.

It’s easy for us to support the free speech rights of people whose views we happen to agree with. It’s much harder to offer that same support to people whose views and words we find loathsome, hateful, and hurtful.

The proof of our commitment to freedom of speech is how passionately we defend the rights of people to say things we believe to be abominable, vicious and utterly wrong.

You couldn’t ask for a better test of our tolerance than Bill Whatcott, who appeared Wednesday before the Supreme Court of Canada to defend his right to speak and to publish.

Whatcott is one of Canada’s best-known cranks, an over-the-top anti-abortion, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay activist. (Whatcott calls himself a Christian advocate. I won’t, because it would be an insult to most of the Christians I know.) Whatcott has also described himself as a recovered homosexual who was “cured” after his Christian conversion.

Edmontonians may remember him best from his 2007 campaign for the mayor’s job. Depending where you live in this city, you may have found one of his disturbing, graphic and inflammatory pamphlets shoved in your mailbox.

Because I live in the federal riding of Edmonton-Centre, and because Whatcott long had a particular grudge against my former Liberal MP, Anne McLellan, I’ve found many Whatcott screeds on my doorstep over the years. They are invariably crude, gross, and offensive, usually cheap black and white photocopies with print so tiny, no one over 40 can read them without a magnifying glass.

I have a simple strategy for dealing with Whatcott’s ravings. I crumple up his hand-outs and I throw them in the trash, under the banana peels and plum pits, where they belong.

Not everyone favours such a technique. In 2001 and 2002, Whatcott handed out some of his grotesque flyers in Regina and Saskatoon. They called for Canada to outlaw homosexual acts, compared pride parades to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and suggested that gay men were pedophiles and child molesters.

“Our children will pay the price in disease, death, abuse and ultimately eternal judgment if we do not say no to the sodomite desire to socialize your children into accepting something that is clearly wrong,” one pamphlet read.

Four people who received the pamphlet filed complaints with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, alleging the pamphlets “promoted hatred against individuals because of their sexual orientation” and therefore violated the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. The commission originally found in favour of the complainants and fined Whatcott $17,000. The ruling was later overturned by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.

The court called Whatcott’s language crude, harsh and offensive, but found that it did not rise (or sink) to the level of hate speech. Whatcott’s rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, said the court, had to be weighed in the balance.

The commission appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Frankly, I’d far prefer that everyone had just allowed Whatcott’s tinpot crusade to sink into oblivion. Instead, all this legal, political and media attention has allowed Whatcott to posture for the better part of a decade as a free speech martyr.

Were Whatcott’s words puerile and hurtful? Absolutely. Were they intended to incite hatred against gays and lesbians? Actually, with all deference to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, I think they clearly were.

But should that make the words themselves illegal, and make Whatcott subject to state discipline and a punishingly large fine?

Whatcott is a zealot. But he didn’t advocate violence. He didn’t propose a pogrom. On this particular occasion, he wasn’t harassing anyone. He simply questioned, albeit in the nastiest of terms, whether and how schools should teach children about homosexuality and gay rights. While I deplore his intemperate choice of diction, I think he was well within his legal rights to address that important public policy question. Any state attempt to censor his speech only feeds the paranoia of those who believe in some kind of “gay conspiracy” to seduce our children. It’s better to expose this kind of noxious, nonsensical thinking to the bright light of day than to attempt to suppress it and drive it to fester underground.

Yet I’m glad to see the Supreme Court tackle this case. There’s far too much legal murkiness around what constitutes true criminal hate speech, as defined by the Criminal Code, and what constitutes a lesser violation of a provincial human rights code.

Is it really the job of provincial commissions to protect us all from having our feelings hurt? Or should they better stick to practical issues like defending tenants and employees from discrimination?

The fight for equal legal rights for gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual Canadians has been long and hard-fought. Despite those many legal victories, homophobia is still a real and damaging social prejudice, and we need to continue to educate and inoculate people against it. But we can’t do that by censorship and suppression. We do it, instead, with informed debate and civil discourse, by responding to ignorance and fear with understanding and tolerance. We can’t win civil liberties for one marginalized group by taking them from another — or by replacing an old orthodoxy with a new one.

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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