Laying Down the Lawton

Never doubt a group of politicians’ ability to find a cure that’s worse than the problem it is attempting to solve. This is truer than ever when it comes to the government’s efforts to curb online hate. Wishing to combat bigotry is a noble endeavour, but it isn’t the role of the state. Certainly not at the expense of free speech, as recent requests to the government would come.

Shortly before recessing for the summer, the Canadian parliament’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights tabled its long-awaited online hate report before the House of Commons. The report, the product of two months of meetings and testimony from nearly five dozen witnesses, calls on the government to reinstate section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, a provision making it illegal to post “hate” content online. The report also calls for government to regulate social media companies into removing “hate” content from their platforms.

I put quotation marks around the word hate not to minimize what hate can do to a society, but to point out the greatest failing of these proposals: the subjectivity of an emotion. Nowhere is hate or hate speech defined in the report, though the recommendations call on the government to come up with a suggestion.

If you want to see why this process will be such a disaster, look at where the self-professed anti-hate crusaders try to draw the line.

Twitter has already determined that “misgendering” and “deadnaming” – calling a transgender person by their biological sex or name, respectively – are hate speech and can get you booted from Twitter. (The more I think of it, that sounds like a blessing rather than a punishment.)

It was already more than two years ago that parliament passed M-103, a motion calling for a “whole of government approach” to curbing Islamophobia, again without defining it. Would saying something like “Islam is wrong” be hate speech? How about “Judaism is wrong”?

Truthfully, anyone who believes in a religion believes alternatives to it are wrong. How about if criticisms are more forceful? In an Austrian case, a woman’s criticism of the age disparity between the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his wife, Aisha, earned her a hate speech conviction, which was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

Any state effort, beyond education, to rein in hate speech is inherently a tool of censorship. There are areas under law where certain speech carries a penalty, of course. One cannot defame, for it violates another’s rights. One cannot breach a confidentiality agreement, for contracts must be protected. One cannot threaten genocide or otherwise issue a call for violence, because such speech threatens the sanctify of the life and liberty of others.

Throughout the online hate proceedings, one Liberal MP suggested these limitations prove that free speech is not a clear-cut, black and white right. More chillingly, he seemed to impute that these limitations give government the right to draw a malleable line around other types of speech it may believe should be curbed. No one should welcome this change with open arms, but rather push it away with as much force as possible.

The aforementioned examples are not exceptions to free speech, but are rather core to what free speech is: the free exchange of ideas between free people. Any speech that threatens or diminishes the rights (not the feelings) may be limited.

These discussions can often be difficult for people of faith. Representatives of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths all testified in support of speech restrictions as the justice committee heard from witnesses.

As society appears to grow more secular, I understand the motivation held by religious leaders to safeguard their holy ideas against the venom of the world. Though it must be acknowledged that things are unlikely to work out in Christians’ favour in the long-run.

We’ve already seen examples of this in action. The bubble zone law passed under Kathleen Wynne’s reign in Ontario was a direct attack against the right of pro-lifers to combat abortion where, arguably, their efforts are needed the most.

Bill Whatcott was fined $35,000 after he distributed 1500 pamphlets in a Vancouver riding, drawing attention to NDP candidate and transgender activist Morgane Oger’s biological status as a male. Whatcott was never prosecuted for criminal hate speech, nor sued for defamation, but still lost the human rights case initiated by Oger.

I’m not a fan of Whatcott’s tactics, but one doesn’t have to like him to understand the dangerous precedent that punishing political speech sets.

I trust God to sort out those who defame my religion.

Christians should respond to attacks with prayer, love, grace and apologetics. These are the tools to combat censorship, which is an evil greater than any it purports to combat.