Canada’s limits on free speech must be clarified

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In an effort to prevent the agenda of the far right from spreading, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a national financial budget specifically targeted toward combating racism. The prominence of the far-right isn’t new to Canada’s society: Exactly a day after Justin Trudeau tweeted his support for making Canada a haven for refugees escaping war in response to President Trump’s infamous “travel ban” proposal, a mosque in Quebec was the site of a mass shooting that killed six people. In Canada, there are already limits on free speech with laws that make hate speech, such as threats, illegal.

Canada’s step in funding toward establishing more “multicultural programs and cross-country consultations on racism” is more or less headed in the right direction to prevent far-right extremism from becoming normalized. Consider, for one, the risks of violence and acts of hate that usually accompany the promotion of far-right ideas — one key component of some far-right ideas is spreading or believing in propaganda that asserts that all Muslims are to blame for terrorist attacks involving Islamic extremists. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that a Muslim woman and her child were attacked in a supermarket in Canada, first verbally, then physically as the attacker attempted to rip off the Muslim woman’s hijab and began tearing at her hair. In the same report, another hate crime was documented a day before the supermarket incident in which a carefully wrapped pig’s head was left at a Quebec City mosque, a direct insult to Muslims, who are not allowed to consume pork as part of their religion.

The rationale behind the budget dedicated to stomping out hate groups and crimes seems plausible: It has a direct goal of mitigating racism and the violence the far right tends to incite, compared to the current legislation that allows free speech but as long as it falls within “reasonable limits.” Section 1 of Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982 can, despite there being guidelines on its use, allow for something offensive to lead someone being prosecuted, but this law is entirely subjective — who gets to decide what is offensive and what is not? People won’t have a hard time recognizing hate speech when they hear it, but there are flaws in unclarified “reasonable limits,” leaving little to the imagination about how such legislation can be abused: Getting someone expelled in school for cracking a joke that was found “offensive,” for example. For this, because Section 1 seems to fail in terms of clarification over what can be said and what cannot, Canada’s new budget seems to have more potential at advertising acceptance of diversity and peace.

At the same time, when looking at the intentions behind Section 1, it can’t be denied that there’s a clear correlation between hate speech and hate crimes. However, despite the fact that hate speech clearly doesn’t fall within “reasonable limits” of Canada’s moderately free speech laws, the legislation still didn’t have an effect on stopping the attack on the Quebec mosque, further bringing into question whether or not any law can really prevent hate crimes altogether. It can be drawn from this that declaring hate speech as not free speech still isn’t an exact fix to the problem of violence being perpetrated by the far right.

Consider another piece of legislation that prosecuted beyond necessity: Section 5 from the United Kingdom’s Public Order Act 1986, a law that ultimately was reformed with the help of a campaign titled “Reform Section 5,” by a group that believed there shouldn’t be a law present to illegalize insults. The statistics behind the number of people that were prosecuted between 2001 and 2003 under violation of Section 5 also prove that change was needed, especially due to the fact that nearly 8,489 minors, some falling as young as 10 years old, were found guilty under Section 5. The rationale behind having to hold a child as accountable as an adult for offensive language doesn’t seem reasonable, as children are still in the process of learning how to develop their own morals and only should be chastised by parents when having committed offensive acts.

Essentially, Canadian legislation, alongside spreading and hoping to normalize a sense of diversity in Canadian society, still needs to clarify Section 1 of the Constitution Act because it’s a loopholed law that harbors the potential to be abused despite its good intentions of trying to moralize society. Perhaps warping limitations of free speech shouldn’t even be a law in the first place due to the varying levels of sensitivity and “offensiveness” each individual in society possesses. In the context of the UK’s reform of Section 5, a reformation of Section 1 makes all the more sense, especially because the laws are, for the most part, synonymous. Still, compared to the confusion of Section 1, Trudeau’s wish to counter anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideas by exposing more of Canada to diversity causes is nonetheless progress to ensuring the peaceful democracy he stands for.

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