Canada high court rules anti-gay pamphlets were hate speech

Wed Feb 27, 2013 5:43pm EST
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By Heather Gardiner

TORONTO, Feb 27 (Canadian Lawyer) - In a ruling pitting freedom of expression against freedom of religion, the Supreme Court of Canada on Wednesday upheld Canada's hate speech laws, while striking down part of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

The top court pared down the law, ruling that an expression that "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of," as the Saskatchewan code sets out, "does not rise to the level of ardent and extreme feelings constituting hatred." That part of Saskatchewan's law goes too far and was ruled unconstitutional.

The case, Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. Whatcott, ( involves William Whatcott, a Saskatchewan man who distributed, in 2001 and 2002, four flyers against homosexuality. Four people complained to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, which then sued Whatcott.

The first two flyers were entitled "Keep Homosexuality out of Saskatoon's Public Schools!" and "Sodomites in our Public Schools." The other two flyers were identical to each other and were a reprint of a page of classified advertisements to which handwritten comments were added, according to the ruling.

In its 6-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that two of the flyers constituted hate speech, thereby reinstating Whatcott's conviction by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal.

"The tribunal's conclusions with respect to the first two flyers were reasonable. Passages of these flyers combine many of the hallmarks of hatred identified in the case law," Justice Marshall Rothstein wrote on behalf of the court.

"The expression portrays the targeted group as a menace that threatens the safety and well-being of others, makes reference to respected sources in an effort to lend credibility to the negative generalizations, and uses vilifying and derogatory representations to create a tone of hatred."

Lucas Lung, a partner at Lerners LLP, says an important point of the ruling is even though freedom of expression was the focal point, one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there is an important equality right being protected here.   Continued...

Anti-gay activist William Whatcott talks on his phone during a break in hearings at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa October 12, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie