Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Quebec's Proposed Anti-Hate Speech Bill Is Cause For Concern


I run an atheist, perhaps even anti-theist blog, which would certainly be shut down in a country like Saudi Arabia or Turkey. In Saudi Arabia, they equate atheists with terrorists, while in Egypt atheism is considered a kind of extremism against Islam by authorities.

The Quebec government has tabled Bill 59An Act to enact the Act to prevent and combat hate speech and speech inciting violence and to amend various legislative provisions to better protect individuals. This sounds okay, but it's worrisome, because what can constitute hate speech is rather vague.
The Act provides for the prohibition of hate speech and speech inciting violence that are engaged in or disseminated publicly and that target a group of people sharing a common characteristic identified as prohibited grounds for discrimination under section 10 of the Charter of human rights and freedoms. Acting in such a manner as to cause such types of speech to be engaged in or disseminated is also prohibited. The Act introduces a procedure for reporting such speech to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse which includes measures for protecting people who report it, and grants the Commission new powers, including powers of investigation. The Commission is allowed to apply for a court order requiring such speech to cease. New responsibilities are therefore assigned to the Human Rights Tribunal, including the responsibility for determining whether a person has engaged in or disseminated such speech or acted in such a manner as to cause such acts to be committed and, if applicable, to determine the amount of the monetary penalties applicable. If the Tribunal concludes that a person has contravened those prohibitions, the person’s name is entered, for the time determined by the Tribunal, on a list kept by the Commission and available on the Internet. In addition, the Charter of human rights and freedoms is amended to introduce the prohibition against engaging in or disseminating such speech targeting an individual, thus rendering the reporting procedure under the Charter applicable.
In a previous post, I defined hate speech like this:
Now he's getting more flak because he went on television and said some stuff... energetically... well, sort of like someone targeting a specific a-religious minority. You know, it sort of sounded a little bit like a direct call to suppression of and/or violence towards a minority. I guess you might actually call it hate speech, if you're into that sort of thing.
Notice I tend to lean more on the side of inciting violence. I find it worrisome that the bill mentions both separately. I also find it worrisome that similar sorts of prohibition seem to be used in countries like Bangladesh to silence atheist bloggers - because their words apparently incite hate and violence.

There is already a law against hate speech here in Canada. Bill 59 adds extra teeth to this law. I would be able to make a clear decision about whether or not I'm for this law if someone could properly define hate speech for me. I've been looking around the stories concerning Bill 59 and I haven't really seen anything that lays out what hate speech is. It seems to be left to the discretion of the Quebec human rights commission.
But Bill 59 — “to prevent and combat hate speech and speech inciting violence” — would introduce a procedure for reporting hate speech to the Quebec human rights commission and would grant the commission new powers, including the power to investigate.
Essentially, the commission can act on a private complaint and themselves determine whether or not something constitutes hate speech.
But the legislation also faced a lot of criticism, notably for failing to define what “hate speech” is, and leaving it up to the human rights commission to decide how much proof it needs to sanction someone.

Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Voltaire could all be found to have incited violence and hatred, said Grey. Should they have been censored?

He and Latour argued that the Bill was dangerous and invasive. It allowed for anonymous complainants and a public list of those found guilty — forever available online.
In fact, the National Post makes an even more disturbing point:
Bill 59, on which consultations are to start next week, is far more worrisome. Bill 59 assigns new powers to the Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) to combat hate speech, as well as a variety of other provisions meant to protect against extremism, by censoring speech that promotes “fear of the other.” Ominously, the bill would allow the QHRC to pursue websites that in its estimation describe and denounce Islamism.

The bill takes its inspiration from recommendations made public by the QHRC in November 2014. Jacques Frémont, the commission’s president, explained that he planned to use the requested powers to sue those critical of certain ideas, “people who would write against … the Islamic religion … on a website or on a Facebook page.”
This is very much not a good thing and it's very much like the situation in some countries I do not wish to live in.
Frémont is an unabashed legal activist, who sees the QHRC’s mandate as “provoking a social change” and “making the law.” (“You will make the law with difficult cases, risky cases,” he said at a March conference at the Université de Montréal.) In support of such stringent censorship he cites resolutions adopted by UN bodies. But the only UN body pressing for this measure is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an Islamist consortium that equates criticism of Islam with hate speech. The OIC’s member nations have nothing to teach any democratic society in the way of “inclusion,” “openness” and “living together,” all justifications for Bill 59 made by Premier Couillard.
I don't know how much of this concern is immediately legitimate, because I've actually agreed with Jacques Fremont when he came down hard on child welfare concerning the Lev Tahor case not long ago. Still, this illustrates an important point. Do we want to leave such an important definition to a commission? This is plenty of power to silence freedom of speech, in the interest of social harmony (like in Singapore) given to a small group.

Lots of minority groups realize that if such a commission is to have such power to determine what's hate and what's not, they had better get on the group or at least help define the parameters.
Some groups are upset that they were not invited to speak at the National Assembly during the hearings. Samer Majzoub, the president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, said he was alarmed because the current list fails to illustrate the diversity of Quebec.

“It is missing all of the groups,” Majzoub said. “They are Quebecers at the end of the day, but we don’t hear from them at all.”

Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, says his organization has launched a special request to be heard. He is concerned that the hearings fail to include minorities who are often the targets of hate speech.
I hope groups like CFI Canada and Atheist Freethinkers also manage to get into this discussion, since I worry that their own websites might someday be shut down by an over-zealous commission.

I'm very worried indeed.

In the end, I want to make it clear that I do not condone violence or discrimination against any minority group - whether they be religious or atheist or any other protected class. It's a good idea on paper, but how can we properly implement such a thing without interfering with people's right to expression? In a civil society, everyone needs the right to criticize the ideas and beliefs of everyone else - this is how a democracy works.

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