Expanding Hatred Again

Don’t expand the Criminal Code’s hate speech provisions. Repeal them!

This morning, the federal government has introduced a new bill in Parliament, C-16, that would, if enacted, add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the definition of “identifiable grounds” used in the advocacy of genocide and hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code. (It would also make them prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian HumanRights Act, but I am not concerned with that here.) Fighting transphobia is a worthy cause, but even in the service of a worthy cause, not all the means are appropriate. As I argued when the previous government introduced its own expansion of the Criminal Code‘s hate speech provisions, this one is not. Here is what I wrote then:

I have argued, in a number of posts (collected here), that prohibitions on hate speech are useless, both because they only punish what I described as “the rear-guard of hatred” and because the truly noxious speech is that of sophisticated and influential politicians who can easily evade the narrow prohibitions of the criminal law, and that they are dangerous, because of their chilling effect and vulnerability to abuse. Needless to say, the greater the scope of the hate-speech provisions of the Criminal Code, the greater their chilling effect and potential abuses are.

I also said that while promoting hatred or advocating genocide on the newly-added grounds is every bit as immoral as on those that were already in the Criminal Code,

criminal law does not and should not perfectly track morality. Not everything that is morally wrong, even deeply wrong, should be criminalized. Hate speech is one of these things.

This remains the case today. The only thing I would add is that the ongoing expansion of the hate speech provisions suggests that there is no limiting principle that would prevent future governments from extending them further and further. Any group that succeeds in making its voice heard in the political arena will understandably demand the same “protections” that others already enjoy, however illusory these “protections” actually are, and the scope of the hate speech provisions will go on expanding. The only way to stop this process is, I believe, to acknowledge that the criminalization of hate speech is inappropriate in a free society, and must be renounced.

The Harm in a Hate Speech Bill

Last week, I criticized Québec’s Bill 59, which would notably introduce a very broad prohibition on “hate speech” in provincial law. This morning, the CBA National Magazine’s blog publishes an English version of some of my criticisms, focusing on one of the bill’s unique aspects, the inclusion of “political convictions” in the list of “prohibited grounds” of hate speech. If you don’t read French, you can now see for yourself what the fuss is about.

Un gâchis

La ministre de la justice du Québec, Stéphanie Vallée, a déposée à l’Assemblée nationale le Projet de loi 59 qui va ajouter une interdiction de « discours haineux » à la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne (alias la Charte québécoise) et aussi, entre autres, astreindre les écoles et les CÉGEPs à protéger la « sécurité morale » des élèves. Fait remarquable, le projet de loi ne définit tout simplement pas les termes cruciaux que sont « discours haineux » et « sécurité morale ». Le projet est vraisemblablement constitutionnel en bonne partie. Cependant, il n’en est pas moins une atteinte à la liberté d’expression et à la primauté du droit.

* * *

Le projet de loi 59 comporte deux parties. La première décréterait une loi visant les discours haineux, alors que la seconde apporte une série de modifications censées « protéger des personnes » à un certain nombre d’autres lois. Les articles 1 et 2 de la loi anti-discours haineux interdisent « de tenir ou de diffuser un discours » « haineux » (« hate speech » dans le texte anglais) ou « incitant à la violence » visant « un groupe de personnes qui présentent une caractéristique commune identifiée comme un motif de discrimination interdit à l’article 10 de la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne ». Les caractéristiques visées par cette dernière disposition sont

la race, la couleur, le sexe, la grossesse, l’orientation sexuelle, l’état civil, l’âge sauf dans la mesure prévue par la loi, la religion, les convictions politiques, la langue, l’origine ethnique ou nationale, la condition sociale, le handicap ou l’utilisation d’un moyen pour pallier ce handicap.

L’interdiction de publier de tels discours est aussi ajoutée à la Charte québécoise par l’article 22. Celui-ci prévoit aussi, cependant, qu’elle « n’a pas pour objet de limiter la diffusion d’un tel discours aux fins d’information légitime du public ».

L’article 3 autorise « toute personne qui a connaissance » d’un discours interdit à le dénoncer à la Commission des droits de la personne, qui peut aussi, en vertu de l’article 6, enquêter sur un tel discours « de sa propre initiative ». En vertu de l’article 11, si elle « considère qu’il existe des éléments de preuve suffisants pour déterminer si une personne a tenu ou diffusé un discours haineux ou un discours incitant à la violence », la Commission « doit saisir le Tribunal des droits de la personne », lequel peut, en vertu de l’article 20, condamner l’auteur d’un discours interdit à une « sanction » allant de 1000$ à 10 000$ pour une première infraction, et de 2000$ à 20 000$ pour une infraction subséquente. De plus, en vertu de l’alinéa 3e de l’article 17, la Commission doit publier le nom des personnes ainsi condamnées dans un registre en ligne.

Parmi les autres modifications à la législation québécoise, j’aborde brièvement une qui est liée, en partie, à l’interdiction des « discours haineux ». Il s’agit de l’interdiction, faite aux CÉGEPs ainsi qu’aux écoles, tant privées que publiques, de « tolére[r] un comportement pouvant raisonnablement faire craindre pour la sécurité physique ou morale des étudiants ». (Le texte anglais parle d’ « emotional safety ».) Le projet prévoit qu’ « [e]st réputée avoir un comportement pouvant raisonnablement faire craindre pour la sécurité physique ou morale des élèves, la personne dont le nom est inscrit sur la liste » de ceux reconnus couples d’avoir enfreint l’interdiction de « discours haineux ». (Le projet contient plusieurs articles employant le même libellé, s’appliquant aux différentes catégories d’institutions qu’il vise.)

Ce qu’il y a de tout à fait remarquable avec ce projet de loi, c’est qu’il ne définit pas les termes les plus importants qu’il emploie ― « discours haineux » ou encore « sécurité morale ». Peut-être que, pour ce qui est de définir le « discours haineux », la ministre s’en remet implicitement à la définition de propagande haineuse développée par les tribunaux, notamment par la Cour suprême dans l’arrêt Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) c.Whatcott, 2013 CSC 11, [2013] 1 R.C.S. 467, encore qu’on donne souvent à ce terme un sens différent, et parfois bien plus large, dans le discours sur le sujet. Quant à la notion de « sécurité physique ou morale » ― ou plus précisément, à celle de « sécurité morale », celle physique étant un concept plus clair ― elle se retrouve dans deux dispositions législatives québécoises (soit l’al. 2e de l’art. 26 de la Loi sur les services de garde éducatifs à l’enfance, RLRQ c S-4.1.1 et l’art. 481 de la Loi sur les services de santé et les services sociaux, RLRQ c S-4.2), et n’y est pas définie. Les tribunaux judiciaires ne se sont pas prononcés sur sa signification. Par ailleurs, il est clair que, si la publication de discours reconnus haineux sera considérée comme faisant craindre pour la sécurité, morale logiquement, des élèves, cette notion ne s’y limite pas. De plus, le texte anglais, loin de clarifier les choses, les complique encore davantage, car il n’est pas certain que l’ « emotional safety » soit exactement la même chose que la « sécurité morale ».

* * *

Comme toute mesure législative, on peut évaluer le projet de loi 59 sur les plans, différents, du droit constitutionnel positif et des principes. En ce qui concerne le droit positif, il faut noter que la Cour suprême a accepté, notamment dans les arrêts R. c. Keegstra, [1990] 3 R.C.S. 697 et Whatcott, que si l’interdiction de « propos haineux » ou de « propagande haineuse », que ce soit par le biais du droit pénal ou dans le cadre de la législation relative aux droits de la personne, constitue une atteinte à la liberté d’expression, cette atteinte est justifiée au sens de l’article premier de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, pour autant que l’interdiction soit interprétée assez étroitement.

Sans me lancer dans une analyse détaillée, je crois donc que c’est surtout la portée particulièrement large de l’interdiction prévue par le projet de loi 59, plutôt que son principe même, qui pourrait être source de difficultés constitutionnelles. Cette interdiction se distingue entre autres de ses équivalents ailleurs au Canada par le nombre « caractéristiques » que peut viser un « discours haineux » tombant sous son coup, et notamment par le fait que l’on retrouve, au nombre de ses caractéristiques, « les convictions politiques ». On pourrait donc accuser et condamner une personne, en vertu de ces dispositions, non seulement pour avoir affirmé, comme l’intimé dans Whatcott, que l’homosexualité était une abomination, mais aussi pour avoir dit la même chose du nazisme ― les nazis étant un groupe de personnes ayant certaines convictions politiques comme caractéristique commune. Je veux bien croire que Mme Vallée n’a pas l’intention de faire condamner des anti-Nazis pour discours haineux, son projet de loi le permettrait, et il est fort douteux que la Cour suprême considère que cette conséquence soit rationnellement liée à des objectifs visant le respect de l’égalité et de la dignité humaine.

Au-delà, cependant, d’un tel scénario catastrophe, on pourrait soutenir qu’étendre l’interdiction de « discours haineux » au domaine des convictions politiques aurait un effet paralysant sur l’expression, par les citoyens, de leurs opinions politiques, un effet négatif que ne compenserait pas la protection de la société contre des propos haineux à l’encontre de groupes qui, contrairement à la plupart de ceux que les interdictions similaires cherchent à protéger, ne sont pas nécessairement particulièrement vulnérables. Cela dit, il est loin d’être certain que les tribunaux retiendraient un tel argument. Dans Whatcott, la Cour suprême a rejeté des arguments fondés sur la spécificité du discours politique. Par contre, il y était question de discours visant non pas un groupe politique, mais bien les droits d’un groupe minoritaire vulnérable.

* * *

Quoi qu’il en soit, c’est sur le plan des principes que le projet de loi 59 est un véritable désastre. Les lecteurs réguliers savent déjà que je m’oppose à toute prohibition contre les « discours haineux », entre autres parce que de telles dispositions sont toujours trop vagues et ont, par conséquent, un effet paralysant sur le débat politique légitime qui est lui-même une atteinte à la dignité humaine, mais aussi parce que les attaques les plus dangereuses contre la dignité des citoyens, l’inclusion et le vivre-ensemble et ne sont pas le fait d’un arrière-garde de la haine, mais plutôt de politiciens suffisamment sophistiqués pour attiser la méfiance de leurs concitoyens à l’égard des groupes minoritaires sans jamais enfreindre de telles lois. Cependant, même ceux que ces arguments ne persuadent pas en général devraient s’opposer à ce projet de loi.

D’abord, parce que, comme je l’explique plus haut, ce projet a une portée excessive, qui va bien au-delà de celle de ses équivalents dans le reste du Canada. Si tant est que l’on a besoin de protéger des minorités vulnérables des discours haineux qui les visent, je vois mal ce qui nécessite l’extension d’une telle protection aux membres des partis ou de mouvances politiques. Certes, comme je l’ai déjà dit ici, « lorsque nous débattons nos opinions contradictoires, il ne faut pas tomber dans le piège de diaboliser nos adversaires ». N’empêche, c’est une règle qui devrait relever de la moralité et non du droit pénal, d’autant plus que nous savons que nous ne pouvons pas faire confiance aux autorités québécoises pour faire preuve de discernement lorsqu’il s’agit de poursuivre des personnes s’emportant dans l’expression de leurs opinions impopulaires.

D’autres traits uniques du projet de loi 59 ne le rendent pas plus acceptable. Le système de pilori virtuel qu’il met en place n’est pas de nature à favoriser la réhabilitation de personnes coupables d’avoir tenu des propos haineux. Bien au contraire, il invite la population à exercer des représailles contre eux, ce qui risquerait de les endurcir dans leurs opinions. Au lieu d’assainir la société, la culture du pilori virtuel envenime les conflits, comme le soutient Eric Posner dans un brillant essai sur le sujet dans Slate. Par ailleurs, cette sous-traitance de la répression est aussi, à mon sens, une entorse à la primauté du droit.

Mais la primauté du droit est surtout brimée par l’imprécision délibérée du projet de loi 59. L’absence de définition des termes cruciaux fait en sorte que les citoyens et les institutions ne savent pas ce qui leur est interdit. Or, il ne s’agit pas seulement d’un problème philosophique abstrait. L’incertitude juridique que la ministre Vallée veut créer aura un prix bien réel.

En ce qui concerne les « discours haineux », la ministre doit savoir que seule une définition assez étroite de ce terme sera jugée constitutionnelle. Elle aurait très bien pu insérer cette définition ou, du moins, certains éléments-clés de celle-ci, dans le projet de loi, de sorte que les citoyens puissent savoir de quoi il s’agit sans avoir à consulter un avocat ou la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême. En omettant de le faire, elle cautionne des lectures inconstitutionnellement larges de l’interdiction, qui mèneront à des plaintes et, possiblement, des accusations à l’encontre de personnes qui exercent leur liberté d’expression.

Les dispositions concernant la « sécurité morale » des écoliers et des cégépiens soulèvent ce problème à un degré encore plus fort, puisqu’il n’existe aucune définition, même jurisprudentielle, de ce concept. Ces dispositions vont donc entraîner des plaintes et, sans doute, mener les écoles et les CÉGEPs à prendre toutes sortes de mesures, y compris des congédiements de professeurs, afin d’éviter de se faire accuser de « tolérer » des comportements menaçant la « sécurité morale » des élèves. Un professeur exprime-t-il une opinion controversée ou critique-t-il seulement un élève? On s’en débarrasse pour éviter une plainte des parents et risquer de perdre une subvention. Certes, ce n’est probablement pas l’intention de la ministre, mais en rédigeant un projet de loi flou au possible, elle rend de telles conséquences non seulement possibles, mais probables.

* * *

Le projet de loi 59 est une véritable attaque contre la liberté d’expression et la primauté du droit. Son idée maîtresse, l’interdiction des « discours haineux » est problématique en soi, mais la façon dont il la mettrait en oeuvre l’est encore davantage. Il aura un effet paralysant sur la liberté d’expression politique qui ira bien au-delà de la portée, déjà trop large, de ses interdictions, et créera une incertitude juridique qui ne manquera pas de créer des problèmes, notamment dans le réseau de l’éducation. Ce gâchis doit être largement amendé ou, mieux encore, abandonné purement et simplement.

Hate Speech in Context

Exactly one year ago yesterday, a mosque in the Québec town of Saguenay was vandalized with what the vandals claimed was pig blood. The attack was clearly intended to show Muslims that they were not welcome in Saguenay (and perhaps in Québec generally), which is, according to Jeremy Waldron, precisely “the harm in hate speech” which criminal law can and ought to combat. Despite this, I argued at the time that “the harm is not in hate speech,” because an isolated incident of this sort does not send much of a message. What does, by contrast, is xenophobic discourse by politicians ― such as that which was used by members of Pauline Marois’ PQ government to justify Québec’s infamous “values Charter.” As I wrote then,

[b]ecause it comes from on high, [such discourse] does much more than a lone attack to tell minorities that they are not welcome in Québec, and to tell those who would exclude minorities from public life that they are not alone. But, because these messages are being sent by sophisticated, intelligent people, they look and sound nothing like the crude mosque attack. They would not, of course, qualify as hate speech by any standard …

A year on, the PQ has been thoroughly defeated at the polls, and Québec is a very different place as a result, as Jonathan Kay observes in an insightful column in the National Post. He notes that

[d]uring the 18-month Marois reign, even the most petty ethnic or linguistic dispute became grist for widespread anxiety and bitterness — because the PQ was desperate to seize on any pretext to fire up the nativists and separatists who comprised its core supporters.

As a result, many members of minority communities were considering leaving the province. As the zealots of “secularism” pontificated about the incompatibility of “ostentatious” religious symbols and “Québec values,”

the shrill nastiness of Ms. Marois and her administration seeped into the everyday life of ordinary Quebecers. On the subway, in restaurants, at gas stations, interactions between English and French, Jew and gentile, Muslim and non-Muslim, became more fraught.

Religious minorities in Québec were suffering precisely the harms prof. Waldron associates with hate speech ― a feeling of being unwelcome, of being second-class citizens, of having to hide their identities and beliefs. (Indeed, Mr. Kay points out that even members of the majority group who did not support the “values Charter” were made to feel these things to some extent, by being labelled as traitors of sorts.) But of course nothing that Ms. Marois or her henchmen said ever reached the threshold of “hate speech.” There was no need for that. We all understood what was going on.

Conversely, as Mr. Kay points out, now that there is a different government, which is not much interested in identity politics, attempts to re-ignite the toxic flames of linguistic wars, or even occasional outbursts of outright xenophobia (such as a notorious journalist’s anti-Semitic comments), are not having the same effect. Because they have no support among the authorities, they do not provoke anything like the same anxiety. Yet Mr. Kay is to point out that “the only reason that such kooks can be written off as ‘irrelevant’ is that Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois got the boot in April’s provincial election.”

The story of Québec in the last year shows, I think, where prof. Waldron’s work on hate speech is right, and where it is mistaken. Prof. Waldron identifies an important preoccupation that members of a liberal, welcoming society should share: we should all seek

to provide assurance to all citizens, and particularly to members of vulnerable minorities, that they are and will be treated as members of society, endowed with rights and deserving concern and consideration.

But he goes wrong by identifying hate speech as the pressing threat to this objective, and criminal law as the means to address it. The harm, once again, is not in hate speech. What really undermines the assurance which prof. Waldron rightly says is important are not the extreme vituperations of a few kooks, but an embrace of a xenophobic discourse by the powerful, regardless of whether it raises to the level of hate speech. And because the category of speech that is problematic in this way if coming from the mouth of authority is much broader than that of hate speech, criminal law cannot be the solution. The problem is one of political morality, and the solution must be found in the same realm.

Expanding Hatred

Yesterday, the federal government unveiled yet another omnibus criminal law bill, Bill C-13, which would become, if enacted, become the Protecting Canadians against Online Crime Act. Although it presented as a law to fight cyber-bullying, it would do a great many other things besides. In particular, it would give law enforcement much greater powers of electronic surveillance than they currently have. Michael Geist and David Fraser explain these changes in detail, and I urge you to read what they have to say. But there is one other clause of the bill, which has nothing at all to do with cyber-bullying, or computer crime, or surveillance, or anything really, which I thought I would briefly discuss here: clause 12, which expands the definition of genocide propaganda and hate speech , which are criminalized, respectively, by s. 318 and s. 319, of the Criminal Code.

More precisely, s. 318 criminalizes “advocat[ing] or promot[ing] genocide,” defined as the killing of the members or the deliberate infliction of “conditions of life calculated to bring about [the] physical destruction” of an “identifiable group.” “Identifiable group,” in turn, is defined in subs. 318(4) as “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” S. 319, for its part, criminalizes the incitement, “by communicating statements in any public place,” of “hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace,” and the wilful promotion of “hatred against any identifiable group” “by communicating statements, other than in private conversation.” Its definition of “identifiable group” refers to subs. 318(4).

It is this definition that Bill C-13 would expand. An “identifiable group” would now mean “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.” In other words, the enactment of Bill C-13 would make it criminal to advocate genocide or promote hatred on the basis of “national origin,” “age,” “sex,” or “disability.”

I have argued, in a number of posts (collected here), that prohibitions on hate speech are useless, both because they only punish what I described as “the rear-guard of hatred” and because the truly noxious speech is that of sophisticated and influential politicians who can easily evade the narrow prohibitions of the criminal law, and that they are dangerous, because of their chilling effect and vulnerability to abuse. Needless to say, the greater the scope of the hate-speech provisions of the Criminal Code, the greater their chilling effect and potential abuses are.

Of course, I don’t think that ― from a moral perspective ― it is any less wrong to advocate, say, the hatred of women, or the massacre of babies, than any of the things which ss. 318 and 319 already criminalized. And, if we are going to have hate speech provisions in the Criminal Code at all, it is not particularly rational not to apply them to gender, age, or disability-related hatred (to the extent that, these things exist; I do not doubt, alas, the existence of misogyny, but is age-based hatred ― as opposed to “mere” discrimination ― a real problem?). But criminal law does not and should not perfectly track morality. Not everything that is morally wrong, even deeply wrong, should be criminalized. Hate speech is one of these things.

On this front too, Bill C-13 is a move in the wrong direction. The fact that this move is buried in an omnibus bill dealing with important and completely unrelated topics, so that the likelihood that it will be seriously debated seems close to nil, makes it even worse.

The Harm Is Not in Hate Speech

I wanted to come back to the sad events of last weekend, when a mosque in Saguenay, in Québec, was smeared with, purportedly, pig blood, and angry letters were sent both to the mosque and to the local Radio-Canada station, demanding that Muslims “assimilate or go home.” As Radio-Canda reported, police are considering charges, both for vandalism and for hate speech ― though they’d have to find those who did it first. (I don’t think I’ve seen any good news on that front.) The community leaders, however, stress that this is an outlying incident, and that the town, or the province, should not be judged by it. Fair enough. But, as others point out, the current climate in Québec, with the government’s proposal, to be finally unveiled on Monday, of a “Charter of Québec Values” stressing secularism ― or, more accurately, suppressing much visible expression of non-Christian religious beliefs while preserving, under the label of “cultural heritage,” Christian symbols such as the crucifix which Maurice Duplessis had hung in the National Assembly ― is a context which we cannot ignore when thinking about the significance of the attack on the mosque.

There is always a danger in trying to link a single crime to some wrong, real or perceived, in the society at large, as people are too often tempted to do in response, say, to mass shootings. However, when a crime seems to have a political purpose, such a link probably ought to exist, if only in the mind of the criminal. This is not to say that society in general or some individual politicians to whose decisions the criminal is reacting have caused or are directly responsible for the crime. Without more, it also does not mean that they have done anything wrong. No one committed any wrong that could have justified FLQ terrorism for instance, though it obviously was a response to the political situation of the late 1960s Québec. But, quite clearly, sometimes politicians do contribute to creating a social climate in which certain sorts of crimes become more likely, even without calling for or even directly encouraging their commission. An obvious current example is Russia, where the enactment homophobic legislation is coinciding with a rise in brutal anti-gay violence.

The situation in Québec right now is, I am afraid, not dissimilar. Much of recent talk of “Québec values” and “secularism” and even, alas, “male-female equality” is code for expressing, in terms that are intended to be acceptable in and indeed appealing to polite society, a barely disguised hostility to those who look and think differently from the majority ― above all, religious Muslims. Instead of trying to convince the people insecure at the prospect of social change that Québec will not be different for looking different, the government is fanning the flames by embracing this language. And so, although I fully believe that Québec’s Premier is sincere in her denunciation of the mosque attack, the policies of her government give heart to those who think like the attack’s perpetrators, and tell those against whom the attack was directed that they are not welcome here. Even assuming that this is not these policies’ intent, it is their foreseeable effect.

And this brings me to the legal point pf this post. I wrote at great length last fall about Jeremy Waldron’s book on The Harm in Hate Speech. As I explained here, the core of Prof. Waldron’s argument “that hate speech must be prohibited in order to provide assurance to all citizens, and particularly to members of vulnerable minorities, that they are and will be treated as members of society, endowed with rights and deserving concern and consideration.” Although the society’s laws might, objectively considered, be egalitarian and welcoming, visible expressions of hatred and contempt undermine the promise of these laws, and must be banned. I also wrote that I was not persuaded by prof. Waldron’s claims. Now the attack on the mosque in Saguenay, and the letters that accompanied it, seem to be a perfect illustration of the sort of thing that worries prof. Waldron ― a visible manifestation of hatred obviously intended to tell its victims that they are they are at best, second-class citizens, and indeed not welcome at all in the society, whatever our other laws might say. Was I wrong to disagree with prof. Waldron? I still do not think so. As the reaction of the local community leaders shows, they are not particularly worried about what they know is an isolated act. It is not that which seriously undermines the assurance of their equal citizenship.

The talk surrounding the forthcoming Charter of Québec Values is a different matter. Because it comes from on high, it does much more than a lone attack to tell minorities that they are not welcome in Québec, and to tell those who would exclude minorities from public life that they are not alone. But, because these messages are being sent by sophisticated, intelligent people, they look and sound nothing like the crude mosque attack. They would not, of course, qualify as hate speech by any standard, including that proposed by prof. Waldron.

My point, of course, is not that we ought to change the law so as to allow us to drag the members of the Québec government before the criminal courts. It would not be possible to word the law in a way that would not prevent all sorts of legitimate debates and create massive chilling effects. Nor should we even try. Bad ideas ― including bad ideas that would relegate some of our fellow-citizens to the margins of society ― ought, if at all possible, be defeated politically. But that is not to say that such ideas, even if they eventually are defeated, are harmless. Yet the harm about which prof. Waldron worries is not so much in hate speech. It is, to a much greater extent, in the polite-sounding pronouncements of the the cynics who try to use an undercurrent of bigotry and hatred to their electoral advantage.

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.