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Fighting Hate: A Dilemma for Canada

Hate speech and hate crime is on the rise globally and Canada is no exception to this disturbing trend. In 2017 police reported a 47% rise in hate crimesi and B’nai Brith has found that anti-Semitism has increased in each of the past three years, rising to record levels.ii

Within this context, there is increasing momentum towards regulating online hate speech and disinformation. In 2017 Germany voted for the Network Enforcement Act which threatens social media companies with substantial fines for failing to act swiftly on illegal content;iii in July 2019 France voted for similar legislation.iv The United Kingdom is yet to legislate but the government has proposed wide ranging measures to tackle online hate.v

Canada has not yet acted in this space, but in June 2019 the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights released a report on online hate which outlined a range of Mosaic’s CEO, Akaash Maharaj, testified to this committee and five of his policy recommendations were adopted in the report.vii Notably, he pointed out that legislation can only ever act as a support to the culture and virtue of a people, arguing that ‘the best defense against hate is a population determined not to hate’.viii

The debate over hate speech is often framed in terms of the tension with freedom of speech. In his testimony Akaash argued that freedom of expression is highest ideal of society, and insisted that regulation should be the ‘barest minimum necessary for the dignity and security of citizens’.ix Currently, section 318 of the Criminal Code prohibits the promotion of genocide against ‘any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability’ (identifiable groups). Section 319 prohibits the public incitement of hatred where it is likely to lead to a breach of the peace and the willful promotion of hatred against identifiable groups.x Akaash argued that these laws are sufficient as they stand, but need proper application to the online realm.

The issue of free speech and hate speech is undoubtedly vexed. It is too easy to feel that one’s opponents’ speech is hateful and should be banned, and yet also to be utterly outraged when a dissident or subaltern group one supports gets censored as hateful. If we are prepared to let our opponents be censored, then at some point we will find our own speech threatened. Free societies must be ever vigilant against creeping censorship and authoritarianism. Indeed, offense is never sufficient for censorship – there is no group in society which can be exempt from trenchant criticism or cutting satire.

And yet, none of this caution militates against proscribing a particular class of hateful speech. The challenge is, then, to identify a class of speech which can be legitimately limited. In doing this, it is important to hold in mind the sort of speech that is being regulated. The state should not regulate what is said in private, rather, what is at stake is what is said in public (and much of social media is a public space), which, as public, may be publicly governed and should be governed in the public interest.

Canada does not currently have a definition of hate and the Committee recommended that the Government ‘formulate a definition of what constitutes “hate”’.xi This is a difficult task, and no doubt the final definition will require a variety of clarifications and caveats. In this blog I broadly understand hate speech as speech that viciously degrades the moral or social status of an identifiable group.

As the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes, freedom of speech is not the only right and insofar as free speech undercuts other rights a balance must be struck.xii Speech which advocates genocide is a clear case: it poses a genuine threat to the most fundamental right of people to life. There is no reason such speech should be protected – it is absurd to suggest it contributes productively to the ‘marketplace of ideas.’

The balance becomes trickier with other forms of hatred. Nevertheless, hatred can undermine the dignity and sense of self-worth of targeted groups and so impinge their rights. Hatred is a form of action which shapes the public realm and produces further action. Hatred can profoundly damage the economic and social prospects of targeted groups and thus militates against the rights of individuals – in extreme cases it can cause physical violence and loss of life.

Canada’s precious multicultural achievement has to be actively sustained and protected, particularly against forces seeking to sow discord. Mosaic plays a role in sustaining this harmony through its diplomacy, education and dialogue. Dialogue, in particular, is crucial for discovering and creating who we are, building communities, and fostering peace.

Dialogue is undermined by hate speech and the polarization it creates. Hate speech creates social inequalities and divisions that militate against productive discourse. Hate drives people apart and away from discussion. One of the reasons we value free speech is that it allows for the exchange of ideas, but hate speech cuts against this. There is thus a space for legislators to act so as to prevent the poisoning of the public sphere.

By: Henry Straughan, Oxford Summer Intern Henry graduated this year from Oxford University with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. During his time at Oxford, he edited and wrote for the student newspaper Cherwell. He is a keen writer, and recently won the Rebecca West Essay Prize.

Outside of academia he enjoys playing rugby, loves running and recently completed a half-marathon. He also regularly practices meditation. Henry has also worked as a waiter, a tutor, and a farm worker. He is most interested in and enthusiastic about issues relating to multiculturalism, and is a strong believer in dialogue as a way for human progress.

*In this blog, Henry explores Canada’s engagement with hate speech laws and its impact on social media.**


i Hate crimes reached all-time high in 2017, Statistics Canada says. CBC. ; COMMENTARY: Hate crimes are rising and Muslims are increasingly targets. Memona Hussain, Special to Global News.

COMMENTARY: Hate crimes are rising and Muslims are increasingly targets ii 3rd straight record-breaking year for anti-Semitism in Canada: report. City News.

iii Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz. Wikipedia Page. ; Germany starts enforcing hate speech law. BBC.

iv France online hate speech law to force social media sites to act quickly. The Guardian.

v Internet crackdown raises fears for free speech in Britain. The Guardian.

vi Taking Action to End Online Hate. Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

vii Akaash Maharaj’s Testimony to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Video posted by the Mosaic Institute.

viii Ibid.

ix Ibid.

x Criminal Code (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46). From the Justice Laws Website, run by the Government of Canada.

xi Taking Action to End Online Hate. Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

xii Constitution Act, 1982. From the Justice Laws Website, run by the Government of Canada.