Free speech is not in jeopardy

September 4, 2019


I generally value Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee's opinions. However, unlike what Gee claims in his piece “Jailing people for hate speech is wrong,” it’s important to understand that free speech in this country is not in jeopardy. Our hate speech laws are rigorous and are meant to protect our freedom. Having been involved in the Your Ward News case from its beginning, the road from hate speech to jail is lengthy and filled with legal tests, properly weighing the fine line between free speech and hate speech. In the case of Your Ward News, the arduous process entailed community complaints; a complex police investigation; a rarely applied consent from the Attorney General (and its own internal evaluation by legal experts); a lengthy trial complimented by experts and witnesses and victim impact statements; an opportunity to appeal the verdict and then – more opportunity to appeal. 

The fact the publisher and editor were convicted and sentenced having passed these tests demonstrates the justice system’s rigorous review of their alleged hate speech and its serious impact on women and Jewish people. Indeed, our hate speech laws and this case in particular show how as a democracy we can work through arguments without violence to resolve conflict. Second, to argue that we should “turn away” is a denial of history and its lessons learned. Many people argued the same when Hitler was a nobody spewing his hate and gaining a following at local bars. Our society is not alone (e.g., Germany and France)and has specifically designed legal tools to avoid this proven threat to our freedom and society. 

Third, Gee proposes that “one way to fight the haters is to argue back, denouncing their slurs and combatting their falsehoods.” However, in this particular case,the media has been relatively silent, other than reporting on the issue. Had there been an outpouring of condemnation from opinion writers, civil society and a solidarity with the victimized groups (women and Jewish people), this argument would have had merit. The only recourse was a legal one.

Fourth,contrary to many other places on earth, Canada is still one of the safest places because of its laws. We are far from perfect, but when was the last time we had a Charlottesville or the KKK marching down Yonge Street (although we do have the Al Quds Day event)? Conversely, America’s First Amendment allows these groups to march and foment hate – and we are now seeing the result and correlation of hate speech-to-violence on American society.

Fifth,one cannot ignore the rising tide of antisemitism and hate in this country. Police hate crime reports and Statistics Canada prove a threatening rise. Gee says that “except in the case of direct incitement to violence, democracies shouldn’t jail people for things they write or say.” Should we then wait until the next Quebec mosque or Tree of Life shootings to happen or should we act responsibly to prevent them? 

Finally, the law is there to protect victimized groups and ensure everyone feels equal. In my humble view, it might be hard for anyone to imagine the tremendous hurt and pain the Jewish community feels when it is targeted. After losing six million of our sisters and brothers in the Holocaust and after Canadians fought and died liberating Europe from the Nazis, there must be legal tools in place to contend with serious matters such as this. For this, I am proud of the police, of the Crown and of the court for stepping up for justice and the preservation of our rights and freedoms.

Avi Benlolo President and CEO, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies; Toronto

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