03.05.2013 07:48 AM

In Tuesday’s Sun: on speech and hate

Free speech is terrific, of course, as long as it’s being exercised in the abstract, or it doesn’t adversely affect you and yours.
That’s why – if you were gay, or a woman, or even just sane – and you came across Bill Whatcott stuffing one of his filth flyers in your mailbox, you could be forgiven for wanting to punch him out.

I know I would. In fact, if I had caught Whatcott trespassing on my property, dropping off one of his propaganda pieces containing graphic images of dismembered fetuses – or one of the ones showing close-ups of the diseases he falsely claimed you get from being gay – I would have been tempted to rip him a new, well, you know. (He seems to be preoccupied with those orifices, like most gay-haters.)

But, being Canadians, none of us are known to have put Whatcott in a hospital for spewing hate. Instead, we’ve arrested him in Saskatchewan (six times) and Ontario (20 times) while the Americans have once. We’ve put him in jail for awhile, too, for causing trouble around a Toronto abortion clinic.

Last week, however, Whatcott hit the big time. In 2005, you see, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal fined Whatcott $17,500 for dropping his gay-hating pamphlets in people’s mailboxes.

In 2010, the province’s Court of Appeal overturned that decision, saying that spreading lies about gays “must always be open to public debate.”

Really? Well, no, said the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, which took the Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. They were joined in their action by various provincial attorney generals, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the United Church and B’nai Brith – more interveners, in fact, than in any other case in the country’s history.

Whatcott was a pathetic loser, a loathsome jerk. But his case attracted a huge amount of attention because many sensible people feared that if the high court struck down Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Code, every other provincial prohibition against hate would soon fall, too. And then all we would have left to deal with extreme expressions of hate would be the criminal law.

After deliberating for 18 months, the Supreme Court last week released their unanimous decision. Whatcott, they agreed, had propagated hatred. He had betrayed “the inherent dignity owed to all human beings.”

The need to combat actual hatred, the Supreme Court declared, is no small thing. It is “pressing and substantial … Hate speech rises beyond causing distress to individual group members. It can have a societal impact. Hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on vulnerable groups that can range from discrimination, to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence, and in the most extreme cases, to genocide.”

They were right, of course. Hateful words always precede hateful deeds.

But offensive speech isn’t always criminal speech, which is why it was critically important, as a society, we maintain a non-criminal legal tool to deal with the likes of Bill Whatcott.

Without the protection afforded minorities by modest human rights codes, all that we would have left is throwing the haters in jail. And that’s not the way to go.


  1. que sera sera says:

    Excellent piece, Warren.

  2. Ed Frink says:

    The Canadian Civil Liberties Association intervened on behalf of Whatcott’s case before the Supreme Court.

    I have canceled my membership with that organization for good reason.

    Hate speech is not free speech. And Whatcott’s fines should be multiplied by a hundred, and he should be fired from his job.

  3. Anne Peterson says:

    There is no complete freedom of action. We are ostensibly a free society but you can’t walk up and punch someone in the nose willy nilly. Why should there be complete freedom of speech? A verbal punch in the nose should be just as forbidden. Don’t hurt others by word or deed should be the message.

    • Ted B says:

      No, a verbal punch in the nose should not be just as forbidden.

      That is Warren’s message.

      We have criminal laws that prevent that kind of direct, physical harm, just like we have criminal hate laws for the violent hatred acts and speech which incite.

      But we also have a subtler way to deal with lesser, but still harmful, forms of hatred with the Human Rights Codes/Acts of the provinces, which has now been confirmed as constitutional by the SCC.

      In fact, part of the SCC ruling said that hurt feelings or simply being offended don’t count and are not grounds for a human rights complaint, even if it is hateful. So they have clarified where the line is even when it is just a human rights complaint. Having a complaint is not enough.

      In that way, the ruling is helpful in a free and democratic society.

  4. dave says:

    What often crosses my mind is the question, How are these activities funded? Where does the economic wherewithal come from?

  5. Reality.Bites says:

    Playing amateur editor to fix a minor inaccuracy.

    Whatcott IS a pathetic loser, a loathsome jerk.

  6. Publius says:

    What defines a “homosexual”? Is it a simple attraction to a person of the same sex in a celibate manner, i.e. “pals”? Or is it when you consummate same-sex anal intercourse? Is there any “in between” definition, or does “gay” mean going all the way?

    It seems to some that the Supreme Court has approved, normalized buggery and any criticism is considered the criminal offense of “hurting somebody’s feelings”. Why does everybody skirt the inconvenient issue of gay sex and it’s disruptive consequences on the society if it is sanctioned by the state? What have we become?

    Just asking, since just looking at certain pictures is illegal in confused Canada where you can’t look and you can’t say what you believe if it is hurtful and therefore hateful.

  7. will says:


    As somebody who has watched you campaign for the release of the Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot with interest, I’m curious about whether you agree with jailing Whalcott for trespassing at an abortion clinic. If you do, isn’t it a touch hypocritical to condemn Russian authorities for doing pretty much the same thing with Pussy Riot, who trespassed and offended the parishioners of a cathedral with their protest?

  8. Bernie M Farber says:

    Warren, Kol Hakavod on a superb piece. I want to remind your readers as well that had this decision gone the other way, you are quite right that those provinces with such civil recourse would have no other choice but to use the blunt bat of criminal law. And more irony, the SCC in effect upheld S13 the same civil law on the federal side through the Canadian Human Rights Commission, that dealt with hate speech. Perhaps had the proponents of squashing s13 had been a bit more prscient they might have understood the predicament some now find themselves in.

  9. H. Tompson says:

    Like the feeling reality television gives us – you know, when you see the 800 pound person and somehow forget about your own pot belly – the Whatcott case helps us forget the miasma of bigotry and dysfunction that is our society. The Catholic Church – the largest religious organization in the world – explicitly condemns both abortion and homosexual behavior as sins – including the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah story in its propaganda* (the word itself first used to describe Catholic literature). Many other religious groups are as explicit in making the link between homosexual sex and the destruction of society.

    The elephant in the room is that, ultimately, the core documents of Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam (the Old Testament, the Bible, and the Quaran respectively) should be classified as hate literature to be consistent with the Supreme Court and the precedents of Human Rights tribunals. Yet, of course, these groups still receive tax-exempt status and the State still outsources many social programs to these groups (as it did in the residential school system).

    For the record, I do think that most religions do pick on non-heterosexuals – in terms of quantity of “deviant” acts – anal sex, fellatio, etc – the vast majority occur among heterosexuals. Indeed, the god-fearing suburbs are awash with alternative sexual practices and seem to receive a dispensation because they are mingled with traditional penis in vagina sex.

    The other sociological elephant in the room is these little Frankenstein monsters like Whatcott are society’s creation – Whatcott’s narrative of living on the streets by the age of 14 and selling himself to older men to survive, sniffing glue to get by, is apparently true. Every social worker or police officer – if they are honest – know this is going in every city and town in Canada. So, take a youth, from a dysfunctional environment, I’ll posit near the border of mental retardation or other affliction, further impaired by solvent abuse, and then tangled up in the underworld and religion, and now society is reaping the mad fruits of it’s willful blindness.

    The economics of this are troubling – it must have taken millions of dollars (dozens of arrests, trials, tribunals, appeals) to extract 17k – rather an astounding ratio – with no evidence Whatcott has moderated his extreme views at all. Taken to its logical conclusion (confiscation of all Old Testaments, Bibles, and Quarans), a trend that would quickly bankrupt the State. Further, once “haters” (a Palinesque term I loath) run out of cash, what other resource does the State have but incarceration or some other punitive measure (flogging?).

    I think the core problem is the near universal self-righteousness in this land which inevitably implies universal self-delusion. As Jesus said to the angry crowd intent on stoning to death the woman apparently guilty of sin, “he that is without sin among you cast the first stone.” This is the essence of a just society.


  10. Fritz Lunquist says:

    The problem is knowing – as a matter of law – what is hate speech, if it does not incite to violence and thus become criminal. A Member of Parliament said that Mordecai Richler’s reminiscences of anti-semitism in the Montreal of the 1930s and 1940s was hate speech (about French-Canadian Catholics). A lawyer once claimed that lawyer jokes are hate speech about lawyers. Anything one doesn’t like or that one finds offensive can be called hate speech. The Supreme Court purported to find a difference between what is hateful and what is offensive, the latter being legal. Good luck with that distinction.

    Many religions condemn a range of human behaviour as immoral. Being in possession of absolute truth as religions are (and why not? they can’t be proved to be false), they are inclined to condemn in strong terms, e.g. eternity of hellfire. However, some humans behave in the ways that some religions condemn. Must religions be silent about morality? Who decides? who appoints the members of the human rights commissions? now? later, after a change of government?

    Makes me nervous, this does. I think the SCC got it wrong.

  11. G Betts says:

    “That is not the way to go.” Why not?

  12. Jon Adams says:

    Would that CTV had the archive of “The Daily Show” available. They did a superb piece on Whatcott back in 2002, actually sending a correspondent to Regina (“gayest city” in “our gay neighbor to the north”) to interview him re: Straight Pride Day, receive a tender foot massage, wrestle on his front lawn, etc.

    Humour ought to be the 21st century’s weapon of choice

  13. Amir says:

    I fully support free speech and I would take a bullet to the head if anyone tried to take free speech away. But in this case here, it’s not free speech, it hateful and hurtful speech. I can not walk into a crowed movie theatre and yell “fire” under the guise of Canadian free speech. Why? Cause my actions would cause panic, harm and people would get hurt physically and emotionally. Words can be a very dangerous thing and can really hurt. When words cause emotional damage this equates to persecution. In Canada we do not persecute people in a minority status because we are a free democracy. I am thankful for the decision of the SCC but I wish they and went further and put Whatcott in jail for life. This would then ensure that no Canadian would ever be harmed by the words of a mad man abusing his privilege of free speech.

    • Ed Frink says:

      Well said.

      Anti choicers like Whatcott don’t deserve free speech.

      He should go through sensitivity training.

      • Lyndon Dunkley says:

        Only in the echo chamber that is WK.com would anyone refer to Amir’s juvenile and hyperbolic screed as well said. First off, Amir isn’t taking “a bullet to the head” for anyone. Second, any time there’s an qualifier to a “I fully support free speech” comment, the original comment becomes void. Third, if you think Whatcott deserves jail for life, you must believe his “crime” is of greater consequence than the myriad of offenses that currently come nowhere close to such a punishment. Finally, if you believe jailing Whatcott would forever protect any other Canadian from facing hate, than a new word beyond delusional needs to be invented to define your thought process.

        In other words, very poorly said.

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