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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Hon. Irwin Cotler: Debate on Bill C-304 – Canadian Human Rights Act

Posted on November 24, 2011

November 22, 2011

Debate on Bill C-304 – Canadian Human Rights Act

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Madam Speaker, the notion implied in the private member’s bill seeks to repeal section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act on the grounds that the sanctioning of hate speech dilutes and diminishes freedom of expression, which as I said elsewhere, is the lifeblood of democracy. I agree with the hon. member that this is a bedrock principle and I have always so affirmed.

 

However, the premise underlying the bill, while well intentioned, is misinformed and misleading. It seems to suggest that freedom of speech is an absolute right, but it does not admit to any limitation, ignoring that all free and democratic societies have recognized certain limitations on freedom of expression. The United States, for instance, is the home of the most robust protection of freedom of speech under the first amendment doctrine. As well, my mentor and professor, the then dean of Yale Law School, Abraham Goldstein, said that freedom of speech is not an absolute right, although people continue to persist that it is.

 

All free and democratic societies, including the U.S., have recognized certain limitations on freedom of expression in the interest of protecting certain fundamental human values. For example, there are prohibitions against perjury, to protect the right to a fair trial; prohibitions against treasonable speech, to protect national security; prohibitions against pornography, to protect the human dignity of women and children; prohibitions respecting libellous and defamatory speech, to protect privacy and reputation; prohibitions against misleading advertising, to protect consumers. I could go on. Simply put, the provisions against hate speech partake in this genre of limitations to protect the rights of individuals and minorities against group vilifying speech, to protect against those discriminatory hate practices that reduce the standing and status of individuals and groups in society thereby constituting an inequality, and this may surprise the member who sponsored the bill, to protect the very values underlying free speech itself.

 

I will cite the Supreme Court of Canada cases of Keegstra, Smith and Andrews, and Taylor. In full disclosure, I appeared as counsel in these cases and did so as a proponent of freedom of expression, as one who has advocated for this bedrock principle before the courts. I have written extensively upon it. Hate speech itself constitutes an assault on the very values that underlie freedom of expression.

 

This promotion of hate speech actually constitutes an assault on that bedrock principle of freedom of expression. Moreover, this is of particular relevance respecting any proposal to repeal section 13. I made this point before the Supreme Court of Canada in the trilogy of cases I referenced earlier.

 

Hate speech is an equality issue as well as a free speech issue. The promotion of hatred and contempt against an identifiable group results in prejudicial harm to the individual and group targets of that hate speech. This harm-based rationale, as the Supreme Court characterized it, supports the sanction of hate propaganda as protective of equality. As the court put it, the concern resulting from racism and hate mongering is not simply the product of its offensiveness, but from the very real harm it causes. The member for Gatineau illustrated this in her remarks this evening.

 

Further, referencing international law, these anti-hate provisions were themselves implemented as a domestic implementation of our undertakings under international law, under international treaty provisions, to combat hate speech. Again, I cite the Supreme Court, which said that the protection provided for freedom of expression in international law does not extend to cover communications that advocate racial or religious hatred.

Similarly, the court invoked section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to argue that hate messaging as well constituted an assault on our multicultural heritage and normative principle.

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Accordingly, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-304. The bill would repeal section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Its effect would be to prevent claims from being brought before human rights commissions, such claims as might protect against group vilifying speech while upholding the freedom of speech and the values that underlie it as well.

 

I understand that the government has concerns with section 13, but the response should be not to repeal the legislation on the alleged ground that it constitutes an assault on freedom of expression, a principle which I and many members in the House are long-standing advocates, while ignoring the countervailing protective need to protect against group vilifying speech.

 

Simply put, the solution is not through repeal of the legislation whose constitutional validity has been upheld by the Supreme Court, but to address the concerns and to offer proposals to modify the regime that is now in place. I would urge the government to consider the possible reforms to address any valid concerns which I will outline in my remarks as preferable to outright appeal.

 

As members may be aware, this very section of the Canadian Human Rights Act is now under review by the Supreme Court of Canada. This debate therefore, if I may say parenthetically, is somewhat premature. We should wait for guidance from this nation’s highest court on the scope and ambit of freedom of expression before entering into this debate.

 

That said, the Supreme Court has already provided much guidance in this area. It has ruled that as a matter of constitutional law, hate speech constitutes an assault on the very underlying principles respecting freedom of expression. The search for truth, the protection of individual autonomy, democratic debate and stability, while protecting vulnerable groups from hate messages, it promotes and protects the fundamental principle of equality.

 

Even if it should be found to prima facie infringe on freedom of speech, as former Chief Justice Dickson put it in these cases, the infringement may be characterized as a reasonable limit prescribed by law demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. It is in that context and spirit that I offer the following recommendations.

 

First, the Criminal Code to which reference has been made with regard to its hate speech derivatives, has a built-in filtering mechanism through the requirement of the consent of the Attorney General of Canada for launching the prosecution. I would recommend a similar filtering provision with regard to the Canadian Human Rights Act.

 

Second, procedural protection could be put in place to limited complainants to one jurisdiction at a time, rather than having as we now do a barrage of federal and provincial complaints that are instituted against the same individual or group, thereby serving as what has been called a strategic lawsuit against public participation, SLAPP, that can understandably serve to chill speech.

 

Third, we could add a statutory definition of hatred and contempt in accordance with the definitions offered by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Taylor case itself.

 

Fourth, we could include a provision under section 41 to allow for the early dismissal of section 13 complaints when messages do not meet the narrow definition of hatred or contempt.

 

Fifth, we could repeal the provision that allows for the assessment of a punitive sanction.

 

Sixth, we could implement better procedural safeguards in terms of the trial process and evidentiary standard.

 

Finally, other reforms the government might consider include allowing commissions to award costs, thereby dissuading persons from bringing forth frivolous matters. As well, the commission could also remove the possibility of an anonymous submission so that the right to face one’s accuser is better respected.

 

In closing, we should be awaiting the Supreme Court decision before debating this. Nonetheless, given the Supreme Court decisions that we do have, the debate we should be having tonight should be regarding how we might reform and structure the human rights commissions to protect freedom of expression while protecting vulnerable individuals and minorities from hate and group vilifying speech rather than committing ourselves to abolishing the entire regime because it has produced results which can be addressed through positive reforms, as I have indicated this evening, which would address the member’s concerns.

 

I would urge the government to rethink its approach and consider some of the reforms I have outlined in my remarks that are intended to protect the bedrock principle of freedom of expression and the values that underlie it, as well as to protect individuals and groups and vulnerable minorities from group vilifying speech.

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