This week the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the hate crimes conviction of William Whatcott, a Saskatchewan anti-homosexual crusader whose pamphlets equate gay men with pedophiles, and claim that “children will pay the price in disease, death, abuse and ultimately eternal judgment” for tolerance of gays in schools. While condemning some of his works, the court found that two of Whatcott’s pamphlets, though virulently anti-gay, stopped short of criminal hate-mongering.
In finding some of Whatcott’s writings criminal and others not, the court helped to define what constitutes hate speech in Canada. According to this week’s decision, hate speech “equates the targeted group with groups traditionally reviled in society.” The offensive pamphlets are deemed to be illegal because they “delegitimize homosexuals by referring to them as filthy or dirty sex addicts and by comparing them to pedophiles.”
Whatcott’s right to freedom of speech extends to speaking out against gay men’s right to advertise for casual sex hook-ups, but does not permit him to lump them in with child molesters or describe them as filth.
Inevitably, the Whatcott decision has drawn fire from defenders of free speech. Jonathan Kay used his space in the National Post to describe the judgment as “anti-Christian censorship,” and stands by the right of religious conservatives to see gays as “agents of civilization-destroying ‘filth,’ or as some sort of deadly bacillus or abomination,” (though he asserts that these are not his own views).
A strong voice for freedom of speech in Canada is about to fall silent when Doug Christie succumbs to liver cancer, sometime in the near future. Christie is a lawyer who has made a career of defending those accused of hate speech. His clientele has featured some of the bright lights of anti-Semitism in Canada, from Alberta junior high school teacher Jim Keegstra, who taught his students that Jews were treacherous, sadistic, money-loving child killers who “created the Holocaust to gain sympathy,” to the violent neo-Nazi leader Wolfgang Droege.
Christie has always said that his defense of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites was about freedom of speech, and the right of accused persons to fair representation. But even he doesn’t believe in untrammeled free speech; when broadcaster Barry Bannerman said, in 1990, that Christie had “aligned himself so many times with these perverted monsters that he has to be viewed as one himself,” the free-speech defender sued, and lost. Christie had more success in an earlier case where he sued a journalist for describing his separatist right-wing Western Canada Concept as the “Alberta version of the Ku Klux Klan.”
So we can see that even the strongest defenders of freedom of speech believe that some speech should not be free. Speech which is both false and harmful can and should give rise to legal action. It wasn’t true that the WCC was a version of the KKK, and the falsehood did harm by drawing unwanted attention to the group’s right-wing extremism. It isn’t true that gay men are filth, or pedophiles, and saying that they are can encourage gay-bashing, which too often turns deadly, or lead to anti-gay bullying in schools, which in turn can lead to teenage suicide.
Until recently, the website of a group called Crossroads Christian Communications included the following list of “sexual sins” or “perversion(s)”: “pedophilia, homosexuality and lesbianism, sadism, masochism, transvestism, and bestiality.” This text, so similar in style and content to what the Supreme Court has just judged to be hate speech, was pulled down recently after the public learned that CCC had received federal funding of almost $550,000 for development work in Uganda.
Uganda raised international controversy when it proposed a law making homosexuality punishable by death. According to the London Evening Standard, that law “was proposed after a visit by U.S. Christian ministry leaders.”
To his credit, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has taken a strong stand against the proposed anti-gay law in Uganda, but Julian Fantino, the minister responsible for foreign aid, dismisses CCC’s homophobic views as irrelevant because Canada’s funding of the group only extends to development work.
CCC, which produces the popular Christian TV show 100 Huntley Street, is very clearly an evangelical organization, which is to say its purpose is to spread the gospel. If the gospel according to them includes the belief that homosexuality is morally equivalent to two very serious crimes – child molesting and bestiality – those are falsehoods which have the potential to be extremely harmful in the mouths of missionaries in a country contemplating the death penalty for gays.
According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Canada has increased its funding to religious aid organizations by 42 per cent under the Harper government. With foreign aid increasingly being channeled through conservative evangelical groups very much like CCC, how can Canadians be assured that the ideas we’re paying to export to developing countries don’t violate our own laws against hate speech?
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.