Canada is not us, nor is the United States Canada. But sometimes a glance north can be instructive as to the long-term implications of a new policy (such as national healthcare) or the practical applications of an existing one (hate crimes legislation).
A few years ago, Canada watchers were riveted by the spectacle of well-known journalists Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn brought to trial for things they wrote or published that supposedly slandered Muslims. Both were acquitted, perhaps more because of their prominence than the injustice of the charges against them. An earlier victim wasn't so fortunate: The Rev. Stephen Boisson of Alberta was prosecuted to the extent of the law when his letter to the editor about homosexual activism was published in a small town newspaper. Having neither fame nor fortune, Boisson was convicted by the Alberta Human Rights Commission (HRC) and told to stop saying those things: no anti-homosexual remarks, in writing or from the pulpit, to anybody, ever. A higher court overturned the HRC decision in 2009-after seven years, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and untold besmirching of his character.
These men were prosecuted under Sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code, originally passed in 1970 but seldom used. In fact, since the early 1990s only 15 people have been hauled into court for violating it. In its original form, the law penalizes "Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace." Identifiable groups include "any section of the public distinguished by color, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation." That's broad enough, but parliament is now considering Bill C-51, which would add "national origin" to the list of identifiable groups and extend "communication" to include hyperlinks in electronic media. So, conceivably, merely linking to a site that someone finds objectionable would make the blogger or writer liable to prosecution, even if he shares the objection.
Canadians are known for their mild demeanor, but they're not that polite. Surely countless slurs against gays, blacks, Jews, Muslims, women, Inuits, obnoxious toddlers, etc., have gone unprosecuted. So the law is as effective as a blind sniper, missing legitimate targets and hitting illegitimate ones. The proposed updates merely spread the net a little wider for unsuspecting bloggers and new media mavens to fall prey to some group with a grudge.
Opposition to the law is based on the principle of free speech, which certainly applies. But the right of free speech is not absolute, and if we grant the best intentions to the law's sponsors and advocates, they have a point: Words can incite hatred, and hatred can lead to violence. The main problem with "hate speech" regulation is that it attempts to enforce niceness.
In an ideal society, we would all get along and speak well of each other, or at least not ill. Defamation laws, like Canada's Sec. 318-319, attempt to edge closer to that ideal by threat of prosecution for intemperate words. Over the last 30 years or so, words have multiplied with media outlets, and received closer scrutiny, especially when applied to "identifiable groups." Just a few days ago I saw this slogan on a church sign: "Words hurt more than war ever could." Really? Would the residents of London or Dresden in the 1940s rather have been pelted with f-bombs than firebombs? If governments were serious about curtailing hurtful words, they would have to put speech police at every public gathering, combing through every local publication, trolling every internet site. It can't be done, or even seriously attempted, without producing the exact opposite of its intention: simmering resentment, real hatred. Bad behavior can be regulated; bad attitudes can't. Nice is something that individuals have to be on their own.