Censorship, hate laws, and freedom of speech


A comment just below questioned my stance on freedom of speech. I started to reply to it, but realized this is a core issue on this blog and I should address my thoughts to all readers. Some of you will agree and some won’t, but for what it’s worth, here’s how I view this very complex and touchy issue.

Freedom of speech is a precious and inalienable right. David H is correct in saying: “Allowing one group of people to decide that the words of another group are so dangerous that they must be silenced is a dangerous precedent.” I have repeatedly stated that freedom of speech need apply to all, and not only to those we agree with. If I, for example, say that Kevin Spacey is a good actor, and an angry mob of people disagrees with me and decides to riot to prevent me from speaking those words, then they are denying my right to free speech.

But freedom of speech does not imply freedom from the consequences of that speech. And that is where laws about incitement of hatred come into play.

The angry mob that chose to silence the speech of Benjamin Netanyahu was denying the right to freedom of speech by deciding ahead of time that based on who Mr. Netanyahu is – namely, the right-wing, former Prime Minister of a country that they hate – he shouldn’t have the right to address a crowd. That was wrong for many obvious reasons. Having read the text of the speech that Netanyahu planned to give on September 9th of last year, it is clear that – though it contains a political opinion that is unpopular amongst the Left at Concordia, it is far removed from any sort of hate speech. If Netanyahu were to have been permitted to speak, however, and if he did in fact incite hatred, then he would have been subject to the consequences of this under the law, just like anyone else.

I think a great deal of misconception comes from the word “censorship”. The C-word is taken as a given evil, and people scurry away from it screaming. But, to quote the old cliché, freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. Not permitting the yelling of “fire” isn’t censorship; it’s protection of public safety. Similarly, it doesn’t give you the right to approach a contract killer and ask that he murder your wife. That may be speech, but it’s also contracting murder which is – rightly – extremely illegal.

So, of course it is obvious that there are limits to speech. Those are clear-cut cases, but what about cases that aren’t so clear-cut? For example, what about somebody publishing a website denying the Holocaust? This is where societies differ – in the U.S. it’s legal, in Canada it’s not. There are arguments on both sides of the issue here. Some would argue that denying this freedom is ultimately more dangerous, because if the situation were to be reversed and the tyranny became the majority, they could conceivably deny the freedom to you. The true test of freedom of speech, they would argue, is whether we can bear to watch a Ku Klux Klan march, or a neo-Nazi rally, without succumbing to our natural desire to shut these racist assholes up.

I think they make a good point. And that they’re wrong.

Freedoms are not absolute. They end at the point where they interfere with the rights of their fellow human beings. Incitement of hatred has real consequences for the groups against which it is directed. And a society must draw the line somewhere in order to function civilly.

Hate speech is not without cost or consequence. To assume that speech is always peaceful is like saying that contracting a killing is a peaceful, protected act. Certain groups have learned very quickly that if you repeat a lie often enough, people come to believe it as truth. And if you spew hate loudly enough and often enough, you recruit others to your cause, and ultimately create what Ursula Owen calls a “culture of hate“:

In the face of such enormities, the political correctness debate has rather muddied the waters, diluting the wider implications of what hate can produce. For the most dangerous threat behind hate speech is surely that it can go beyond its immediate targets and create a culture of hate, a culture which makes it acceptable, respectable even, to hate on a far wider scale. Such a culture of hate is not easy to define, and does not necessarily have one trajectory, but its evolution is evident in the circumstances surrounding some events in recent history.

[ . . . ]

Words can turn into bullets, hate speech can kill and maim, just as censorship can. So, as dedicated opponents of censorship and proponents of free speech, we are forced to ask: is there a moment where the quantitative consequences of hate speech change qualitatively the arguments about how we must deal with it. And is there no distinction to be made between the words of those whose hate speech is a matter of conviction, however ignorant, deluded or prejudiced, and hate speech as propaganda, the calculated and systematic use of lies to sow fear, hate and violence in a population at large?

Owen has been one of the world’s most staunch supporters of freedom of speech. But even she concedes that the area of hate speech is tricky, and that there are no clear-cut answers.

Speech is a weapon as well as a right. There ought to be a wide range of what is considered acceptable speech. We shouldn’t censor speech simply because we disagree with it or find it distasteful. But when it crosses the line into outright incitement of hatred, then it stops being a healthy part of society and becomes a cancer.

If the majority becomes the tyranny, then hate speech laws may be used against the good minority. But we must prevent the majority from becoming the tyranny in the first place, or else we’ll have a lot more to worry about than laws on freedom of speech. We’ll have lost our humanity.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David H 09.10.03 at 4:45 AM

“Freedoms are not absolute. They end at the point where they interfere with the rights of their fellow human beings. ”

The above is of course summarized in the libertarian cliche of “your rights end at my nose” or something like that. I can swing my fist around as much as I want, as long as it doesn’t hit your face.

I think you are trying to draw a line in the sand where none can ever possibly exist and be rationally defended. I have struggled with that argument myself. On one hand, I believe that people should be able to express their opinions, no matter how disgusting or abhorrent they may be.

On the other hand, when people repeat lies so often that they become a form of truth (holocaust deniers being the prime example) it seems to me that we have crossed the line into “hate speech”.

The line that you are trying to draw here is given by your sentence.

“But when it crosses the line into outright incitement of hatred, then it stops being a healthy part of society and becomes a cancer.”

My question is therefore, at which point has a given amount of speech crossed this line? You can’t simply say that it needs to be decided on a case by case basis. That essentially removes any right to free speech that might have existed, since the person making the decisions might decide 10 years from now that defending abortions is an unacceptable crime of hatred against a fetus.

There needs to be a standard, and it needs to be clear and reasonably objective. I can’t think of a good standard at the moment to separate unacceptable hate speech from distasteful hate speech. It is possible that you have some ideas, and I’d love to hear them!

Anyhow, I’ll give some case examples and see what we can make of them in the next comment.


2 David H 09.10.03 at 4:51 AM

Case A

A political figure comes in to discuss his laws that your group thinks are fairly racist. Should he be allowed to speak?

Case B

A political figure comes in who has been accused of war crimes. He tends to speak of benign political anecdotes, but you never really do know.

Case C

A political figure comes in who has been accused of war crimes. He tends to speak of expelling a portion of the population of his country. Should he be allowed to speak?

Case D

Same as case C, but now he talks about killing a portion of the population of his country.

Case E

Same as case C, but now its widly known that he has decapitated a large number of his enemies. He intends to talk about how to dig pits to bury the bodies of his victims. Should he be allowed to speak?


3 segacs 09.11.03 at 3:24 PM


Sorry it’s taken me some time to answer. You raise good points and I didn’t want to just dash off a quick response.

This exchange might best be continued via e-mail, but let me just respond to a few points:

My question is therefore, at which point has a given amount of speech crossed this line? You can’t simply say that it needs to be decided on a case by case basis.

Actually, that’s precisely how it must be decided – on a case by case basis. There’s this notion that deciding things according to the situation at hand is “dangerous” or leads to a “slippery slope”. But the fact is that we live our lives in the middle of spectrums, not at the extremes. There’s always a need to find a balance.

There needs to be a standard, and it needs to be clear and reasonably objective.

You’re mistaken to think that there is no standard. If you read the relevant section of the criminal code carefully, you’ll see that it does not outlaw all forms of speech, but specific ones. Namely, advocating genocide against an identifiable group distinguished by colour, race, religion or ethnic origin, or public incitement of hatred (to which so-called “legitimate” defences include basing the argument on religion – which, in my opinion, is a concession that even goes too far). In addition, criminals can receive longer sentences for other forms of crime if they were motivated by hate, which is more of a testament to their propensity for recidivism than anything else.

So the law is not “arbitrary” as you claim. It does leave significant room for interpretation. Perhaps it should be tightened. But it is impossible to come up with one universal standard to apply to every situation – because every situation is different, and a law that is too rigid wouldn’t make allowances for certain kinds of cases.

As for your examples, I’m no judge, but I believe that speech cannot be pre-emptively convicted. For example, we can’t say that “so-and-so can’t open his mouth because hate might come out of it”. The criminal code doesn’t convict people for crimes they have yet to commit. (For a world like that, see the movie Minority Report). In case E and perhaps D, this person should have been charged under international law and, if convicted, would certainly not be allowed into Canada for any reason, let alone to give a speech.

But if, as I think you are, you’re referring to Netanyahu, obviously he doesn’t fall into these categories. The “widly known” aspect of your argument is just the result of anti-Israel groups and their widespread propaganda campaigns to villify and descredit him. Despite Jaggi Singh’s fake “warrant”, he is not a war criminal and is also an elected representative of a democratic ally. He should therefore have the right to speak, just like anyone else.


4 segacs 09.11.03 at 3:25 PM


That being said, if someone does address a crowd and incite hatred as part of his or her speech (which Netanyahu had no intention of doing, but that’s besides the point), then they should be charged after the fact. A person can be convicted for a crime that they have in fact committed.

I hope this begins to answer your points.


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