Banning hate speech may sound like a wonderful idea, except that people cannot agree on what is hateful. Hate, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The subjectivity of what is “hate” makes Ontario’s Bill 84 very dangerous. This proposed new law to prohibit hate-promoting demonstrations at Queen’s Park is short and simple: “No demonstration, rally or other activity that, in the opinion of the Speaker, is likely to promote hatred against any identifiable group shall be permitted on legislative precinct grounds.” Bill 84 has passed second reading and is now going to committee.
While the Speakers of Canada’s legislatures are committed to impartiality among political parties, their humanity remains susceptible to biases, prejudices, and beliefs. Like all people, a Speaker’s thinking is influenced by assumptions about the source of morality, the purpose of human life and what moral principles should govern our behaviour. In assessing what is or is not hateful, nobody is fully objective, no matter how hard they may try.
At McMaster University, the accusation of hate was recently directed against a presentation in which speaker Rukiye Turdush accused the Chinese government of committing genocide against the Uyghur people.
Turdush claims that China has persecuted and detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in “re-education camps” in the western Xinjiang region. A coalition of Chinese student groups claimed Turdush’s presentation promoted “hatred” against China. Conflating a violent government with only some of its people, they reported the presentation to the Chinese consulate in Toronto, and asked McMaster to ensure the “dignity of Chinese students is not infringed.”
If speaking out against human rights abuses constitutes “hate” against China, then what about the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”? Daniel Goldhagen argues that the Holocaust was supported by tens of thousands of ordinary Germans, who participated actively and deliberately in persecuting Jews. Does this book promote hatred against Germans?
The word “hate” is used ever more casually, and ever more frequently. It has become a blunt political weapon to silence one’s opponents. It has been said that critics of Israel hate Jews, critics of Islam hate Muslims, pro-lifers hate women, pro-choicers hate human life, those who disagree with gay sex hate gay people, radical feminists hate men, and the list goes on.
If some ex-Muslims wanted to hold a rally at Queen’s Park to draw attention to what they see (correctly or incorrectly) as the slow-but-steady, step-by-step Islamization of Canada, would the Bill 89 prohibit the demonstration as “likely to promote hatred” against Muslims, an identifiable group?
When social conservatives rally to oppose what their children are being taught in school about sexuality, gender, and marriage, will such demonstrations be banned as “likely to promote hatred” against LGBTQ individuals?
Are environmentalists “likely to promote hatred” against some industries, or against “climate change deniers”?
Some Canadians would, if given the chance, ban anti-Israel protests because they are “likely to promote hatred” against Jews. Others would support banning pro-Israel “propaganda” because it is “likely to promote hatred” of Palestinians or Muslims. Radical animal rights groups are “likely to promote hatred” against those who own and work for the fur industry, or the meat industry.
Even if people could agree on what is or is not “hate,” this is not the standard which Bill 84 seeks to impose. Rather, Bill 84 will prohibit not “hatred” but even what is “likely” to promote “hate,” as determined by one fallible, biased human, the Speaker of the Legislature.
Prohibiting hate-promoting demonstrations at Queen’s Park will not work, because there is no clear, objective standard of what is “hate,” that all people of good will rally around. Because there is no such standard, the Speaker’s decision as to what speech is allowed or not allowed will necessarily be a political decision.
The record of basing decisions of justice on political standards is historically packed with abuse. Groups will be banned from exercising their Charter freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly whenever an offended group complains loudly enough about a proposed event they dislike being “likely to promote hatred.” Groups that are politically well-organized will succeed in persuading the Speaker to silence their opponents.
Of course, we do need to draw a line that divides permissible from impermissible speech. In a free country, that line should be clear and objective: the direct promotion of violence, genocide and similar criminal conduct should be banned. The subjective political standard of Bill 84 falls far short of that mark.
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca)