The best way to combat speech you find offensive is more speech. Despite it being the best way to handle these situations, it’s also the least-used option. And, in legislators’ hands, “more speech” is rarely on the table. But “more law” almost always is.

An editorial from the Montreal Gazette discussing the Quebec government’s proposal for a new “hate speech” law not only points out the potentially damaging side effects of the poorly-drafted bill, but other aspects that should have prevented it from ever getting this far in the legislative process.

To begin with, there are already laws in place to deal with “hate speech.”

Certain types of communication are considered unacceptable, particularly speech that intentionally incites others to violence or hatred against a particular group. The Criminal Code already provides for this, and more importantly, it sets out clear parameters for the successful prosecution of hate-speech offences and specifies the conditions under which statements that some may see as hate speech are legally permissible. And as with all crimes, conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

There it is. A law already exists to address these issues. But this law apparently has problems — like “clear parameters” and requirements for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” The new law will have neither of those.

The legislation, in its current form, fails even to define hate speech, leaving the grounds for a complaint to the provincial human rights commission open to interpretation. Also of concern is that the complainant may remain anonymous. Once a complaint is received, the bill would grant the commission sweeping new powers to investigate an alleged offence, and to then forward cases to the human rights tribunal for action.

The tribunal, in turn, could decide — based on a level of proof that it determines itself — whether a person has engaged in or disseminated hate speech, or “acted in such a manner as to cause such acts to be committed.” If so, fines could be levied and names added to a publicly available list for an indeterminate period of time.

These changes for the worse have been prompted by critics of the existing law, as it fails to criminalize enough speech and raises the bar too high for those hoping to punish people for offending them. Passing this law would allow hecklers to exercise their veto power more frequently, more effectively and, as a bonus, completely anonymously.

The end result, of course, is the chilling of speech. Currently, there’s a measure of due process to the proceedings. If this bill passes, that’s gone. And with no clear standard expressed in the bill itself, all sorts of previously protected speech will be potentially subject to criminal penalties.

But that’s only part of the problem. The other issue is that the bill seems to be a quid pro quo exchange meant to give the government a pass on yet another targeted restriction.

The anti-hate bill was introduced as part of a “package” of sorts, rolled out in June in response to (among other things) concerns about the radicalization of impressionable young people and a rising tide of public anti-Muslim sentiment. The package also included a detailed anti-radicalization strategy and another bill that would ban the wearing of face-coverings while giving or receiving a public service. The face-covering ban will almost exclusively affect Muslims, so the hate-speech bill could be seen as a kind of olive branch to the community, and another way to defend against increasingly vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric in public discourse.

So, the Quebec government wants to crack down on radicalization.  and force Muslims to look “less Muslim” when engaging with the Quebec government. In exchange, everyone — not just Muslims — will be allowed to anonymously report nearly anything that offends them to the commission and allow the bill’s vague machinations to take over. It’s written from the ground up to be abused. And while it may be a slight nod towards the Muslim community the government is slapping with other restrictions, it’s a safe bet that Muslims will also be frequently targeted by hate speech complaints to the tribunal. By leaving the burden of proof entirely in the tribunal’s hands, any and all complaints are valid until otherwise determined by a third party in its sole discretion, with no input from the accused. How could that possibly go wrong?


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