The Whatcott Case: Canada's Hate Speech Laws Revisited

The Supreme Court of Canada releaes unanimous rulling in Saskatchewan Hate Crimes Case

By Hugo Dann (for Wayves)

On February 27, the justices of Canada's Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision upholding part of a Saskatchewan Human Rights ruling against Bill Whatcott, a conservative Christian and anti-gay activist. In 2001 and 2002, Whatcott distributed four different pamphlets door-to-door in Regina and Saskatoon. The pamphlets contained graphic images of diseased genitalia and suggested there was a homosexual conspiracy teaching "filth" in schools. “Our children will pay the price in disease, death, abuse and ultimately eternal judgment if we do not say no to the sodomite desire to socialize your children into accepting something that is clearly wrong."

Four people who received the pamphlets filed complaints with Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Commission. In 2005, the Commission found Mr. Whatcott to have contravened Saskatchewan’s hate speech laws and ordered him to pay compensation. That decision was overturned last year by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals, causing the Human Rights Commission to bring the case to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Whatcott asked the court to strike down laws limiting freedom of speech and religious expression. A number of interveners in the case, including religious organizations and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, supported Mr. Whatcott. Canada’s national LGBT organization, Egale Canada, intervened on behalf of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. Cynthia Peterson, Egale’s representative responded to Mr. Whatcott’s appeal to gays and lesbians to repent and lead a “healthier life,” saying to the Court, “I’m here to tell you that we’re not feeling the love.” (Editor’s note: Read Egale’s media release on the judgment below)

The Supreme Court reduced the fines originally imposed on Mr. Whatcott, but decided that he must pay $7,500 in compensation to the complainants who received the two pamphlets that were judged to contain hate speech.

The Court attempted to refine some of the definitions of what constitues hate speech, but its ruling is is not likely to be the end of the debate surrounding laws governing speech in Canada. There is currently a Private Member's Bill before the House of Commons that seeks to strike down part of the hate speech provisions that apply to the Internet. Provincial legislatures and human rights commissions will also be examining their practices in light of the federal court's ruling.

Egale Canada Lauds Equal Protection under Law

Toronto, Feb 27: Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. William Whatcott is a merited affirmation of lesbian, gay and bisexual equality under Canadian law.

In a unanimous ruling, the Court rejected the notion that some groups of people are less deserving of human rights protections than others, overturning comments to this effect by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.

Egale Canada had intervened in this case in order to oppose the appeal court’s assertion that sexual orientation is a matter of morality such that hatred based on it is less serious than hatred based on race or religion. “The Court wisely held that connecting speech to morality or public debate doesn't immunize it from restrictions on hate speech,” said Robert Leckey, President of Egale Canada. “We appreciate that the Court recognized the strong connection between same-sex sexual conduct and sexual orientation, namely that attacks on such conduct may be a proxy for attacks on the group.”

In keeping with a longstanding commitment to freedom of speech, Egale Canada took no position on the constitutionality of the provincial law or on its application to Mr. Whatcott’s flyers. “Egale Canada’s sole concern in this case was that legal protections be applied equally to all, whatever their sexual orientation,” remarked Leckey.

Egale Canada is Canada's LGBT human rights organization: advancing equality, diversity, education, and justice.

Editor's note: To read Halifax activist/lawyer Kevin Kindred's opinion piece on the Court's ruling, click here.

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