Can ‘free’ speech be ‘hate’ speech?

EFC addresses Supreme Court on what has been called the most important ‘free-speech’ case in two decades

October 26, 2011 | God at work in the World | Number 21
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

Granted permission to present oral arguments by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. William Whatcott case, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada—whose membership includes Mennonite Church Canada—on Oct. 12 argued “that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to freedom of religion, conscience and expression to all Canadians, and that the right to debate moral issues, whatever they may be, is foundational to a true and vibrant democracy,” said Don Hutchinson, EFC vice-president and general legal counsel.



In 2001 and 2002, Whatcott distributed flyers to neighbourhoods in Saskatoon and Regina. Vehement in tone and language against homosexuality, the flyers offended some individuals, who filed complaints with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. At the tribunal, the flyers were found to contravene the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code and to promote hatred.



The present case is the result of multiple appeals of that decision, most recently before the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal that found the flyers to be acceptable free expression. It is that decision that has been appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.



“If the Supreme Court of Canada rules that one cannot act in a non-harmful way in public dialogue, inspired by one’s religious beliefs, then one does not have religious freedom—but only freedom to believe—and what kind of right is that?” wondered Faye Sonier, EFC legal counsel,  before the Oct. 12 court date. “The courts have made it clear that religious freedom includes the right to speak about our beliefs, to share our beliefs and to practise our beliefs. This, therefore, includes the right to speak freely about them.”



“While we don’t necessarily condone the language Mr. Whatcott used, we do firmly believe that every Canadian should be, and feel, at liberty to share their beliefs and participate in the democratic process from a faith-inspired perspective,” said Hutchinson. “Canada is a multicultural, multi-faith society. To shut out the expression and beliefs of one perspective is to dictate who can and who cannot participate in peaceful public policy dialogue. It is simply undemocratic.”

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In response to Canadian Mennonite's article, 'Can "free" speech be "hate" speech?', it seems that we Christians are missing the point.

Most articles so far are presenting this issue as one that pits Christian beliefs against free speech rights, when in reality, this is mistaken. According to Canadian law, free speech is allowed until it degenerates into hate. This means that it's not what Whatcott was saying (i.e. homosexuality is wrong) that's the issue--it's the degree, the language and the means he chose to express himself that arguably crossed the line.

Whatcott's flyers contained headings such as "The Sodomite Agenda," which implies some sort of conspiracy amongst homosexuals or intent to harm/manipulate, and referred to LGTB people as "dirty", "filthy", "degenerate" and as pedophiles.

Whatcott's literature went beyond expressing his religious beliefs. He referred to homosexual people in derogative terms and wantonly associated them with pedophilia, which is an abusive crime and a demonizing stereotype. His flyers were not about encouraging a genuine (if uncomfortable) debate on a sensitive issue--it was about disrespecting and degrading a specific group of people.

If Whatcott had simply worn his "Homosexuality is a sin" T-shirt and publicly argued his beliefs against homosexuality from a Biblical perspective, he would not have been charged with a criminal action.

Whatcott and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada seem intent on spinning it so that every Christian feels bound to support him, even though the EFC itself admits that they "don't necessarily condone the language Mr. Whatcott used." In this situation, Christians can (and I would argue, should) reject Whatcott's methods no matter where they fall in the homosexuality debate.

As we remember that we are all children of God and so deserve love and respect, let's keep in mind what this issue is really about.

--Kelsey Hutton, Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, MB.

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