Chilling Effect

I wrote a while ago about the case of Matthieu Bonin, a Québec blogger who was accused of incitement to hatred, after making some admittedly tasteless and idiotic statements which, nevertheless, didn’t amount to anything like hate propaganda. Fortunately, as La Presse reports, the charges against him have now been dropped. Yet they should never have been brought in the first place, and the story does illustrate the insidious effect of the existence of relatively vague hate speech provisions in the law, and especially of the prosecutorial abuse of such provisions.

I can’t even imagine what it is like to live for months with criminal charges―even, or perhaps especially, unfounded criminal charges―against you. Mr. Bonin was also prevented from uploading videos to the internet―a curtailment of his freedom of expression for which, as has now been officially confirmed, there was no good reason at all. In the grand scheme of things, two months without ranting on YouTube aren’t very much, yet even if relatively small, it is still a loss of freedom for which nothing can compensate.

Mr. Bonin speaks of having learned a lesson about use of language on the internet. But there is also a lesson for us all in his story, about the dangers of laws that restrict speech and of prosecutors who apply these laws according to their fancy rather than to what they actually say.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

3 thoughts on “Chilling Effect”

  1. I’ve been doing some reading on freedom of speech and I’ve really enjoyed the set of posts you’ve written on this. The point you made about minimal clarity in “Hate, Dignity and the Law” is very interesting and intersects quite directly with Bonin’s case. He appears to be a rather foul mouthed joker, which isn’t my cup of tea, but I wouldn’t have taken his wishes that bad things happen to people as serious incitement to violence and I assume the charges surprised him greatly.

    Waldron’s book was already on my reading list for the very near future. I don’t know if he address a question that I see as being very relevant, does legislating against hate speech even work in assuring minority groups of the human dignity he’s interested in? For instance, in France they have laws against antisemitism and here, in the U.S., we don’t, yet I don’t believe we have more antisemitism here as a result. I would actually worry that legislating against certain types of speech could increase the sense of persecution that seems endemic on the far, far right.

    You mention that actual hate speech cases often represent the rear guard actions. In fact, this isn’t surprising at all. As someone whose opinion on free speech was formed by the Skokie case, it surprises me that much of these arguments for curtailing speech is coming from people who seem to me to be on the left. I would have thought that people on the left would be more skeptical of the power of government.

    Ironically, it was probably freedom of speech that has allowed many of these previously marginalized groups to attain that dignified status Waldron seeks. Many publications advocating rights for homosexuals were once prohibited because they were considered obscene. So, too, was information about birth control.

  2. First, thanks for reading and for commenting!

    I think you’re right about Bonin. About Waldron, I don’t think he addresses this question, at least as an empirical matter. He would say that, regardless of the existence of discrimination, prejudice, or hatred arising from other causes, hate-speech laws do something good in eliminating one visible and highly noxious form of intolerance. And of course it is hard to know what the counter-factual is. Maybe there is more Antisemitism in France than in the US, but can we tell that, if France didn’t have hate speech law, and/or the US did, the difference wouldn’t be even greater? We probably can’t prove anything, and our guesses are likely to be influenced by our normative ideas of hate-speech laws.

    It’s a very good point about free speech being what made it possible for groups that were persecuted to gain rights and dignity. Homosexuals are a good example (witness the shrill campaign going on in Russia now to ban “homosexual propaganda,” which is blatant homophobia). Or imagine what a law banning criticism of apartheid would have done in South Africa―a law that would have had exactly the same sort of “public aesthetics” rationale that Waldron proposes for hate speech prohibitions. But both left and right strategically claim being against the excesses of government when the excesses are of a sort they don’t like, only to endorse them in other situations.

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