That sound you hear is Voltaire rolling over in his grave.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Once upon a time, it was commonly understood that this sentiment is the very foundation of a free society. Compromise free speech, water it down, and you destroy freedom itself.
In Toronto there lives a man named Bill Whatcott. During the last two decades or so, he has spent much of his time traveling around Canada, waving protest signs at gay-pride parades and Planned Parenthood clinics, agitating for the criminalization of homosexual acts and abortion, and distributing fliers packed with incendiary language about gays and graphic images of aborted fetuses. In 2010 the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal fined him $17,500 for distributing “hateful” materials; an appeals court overturned the ruling, whereupon the province's Human Rights Commission appealed the case to the Canadian Supreme Court. Now the Court has ruled, and it's an icy day for freedom in the Great White North.
To be sure, the Court's unanimous ruling on the Whatcott case pretends to be nuanced, measured, carefully thought-out – a product of the most sophisticated kind of legal deliberation. In evaluating the hate-speech section of Saskatchewan's Human Rights Code, for instance, the Court struck down a passage forbidding speech that “ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity” of certain groups, while upholding a prohibition on language that is “likely to expose” those groups to hatred. For the most part, the Court upheld the province's hate-speech legislation, maintaining that it “appropriately balances the fundamental values underlying freedom of expression with competing Charter rights and other values essential to a free and democratic society, in this case a commitment to equality and respect for group identity and the inherent dignity owed to all human beings.”
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