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Justice committee to look at hate speech law

Need to protect freedom of speech: Liberal MP

Commons justice committee members may soon debate the hate speech provisions of the Canadian Human Rights Act, as the call to protect freedom of speech grows louder.

Conservative MP Brian Storseth has brought forward a motion to the Commons justice committee to examine Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. That section of the legislation empowers the Commission to deal with complaints of hate speech being communicated by telephone or the Internet.

Last year, Liberal MP Keith Martin tried to table a motion in the House of Commons to have the justice committee repeal Section 13 of the CHRA.

“What’s happened is Section 13 of the Human Rights Act is being used in a way that is quite frankly trampling upon freedom of speech,” says Martin. “We have a right, thankfully, to be protected against being a victim of hate speech, but we don’t have a right not to be offended.”

Martin sees the hate speech law as having been stretched beyond what it was intended to do, hence his push to have the Act reviewed.

“It needs to be amended, so that we are able to protect one of our true freedoms — the freedom of speech — and yet be protected from being subjected to hate speech,” Martin says.

Members of the justice committee from all three opposition parties are in agreement to review the legislation, but some are opposed to a complete repeal of the section.

VIEWPOINT:

– Brenda Cossman: Feb 14, 2008

“Human rights commissions should not be censors. They should not be deciding just what words are too offensive for the Canadian public to hear. Imagine how gay presses might have fared over the years with these kind of laws, since lots of Canadians think that the stuff that gay people say is, well, totally offensive.”

Read Cossman’s full editorial…

“It’s pretty innocuous as a motion, but we know that the Conservatives want to get rid of Section 13,” says NDP justice critic Joe Comartin. “I think there’s a general consensus among the opposition parties of not getting rid of it, and looking at ways of dealing with some of the apparent abuses.”

Comartin says MPs could look at more clearly defining the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s mandate, structure and appointment process.

Liberal committee member Ujjal Dosanjh says that even groups in favour of Section 13 agree that the legislation can be approved upon.

“If it can be improved upon, we’d be happy to actually do a review,” says Dosanjh. “But my fear is that the Conservatives have agenda, and it is not one of improvement, but it is one of repeal.”

Martin suggests his colleagues on the committee listen to experts in the field, most especially Professor Richard Moon, who wrote a report calling for the repeal of Section 13, as well as the chair of the Human Rights Commission, Jennifer Lynch.

Martin says that the Commission itself recognizes that the public is “aghast at how the Act has been used in ways that it was never intended. They’d like to have a proper structure.”

Bloc justice critic Réal Ménard, also on the committee, is aware of Martin’s motion last year, but is currently studying the section, reserving judgment until he has had more time. Ménard has also moved a motion in the committee to have “social condition” as a means of discrimination added to the Canadian Human Rights Act, as it is in Québec provincial legislation. He is looking to have his motion merged with Storseth’s, as they deal with the same piece of legislation.

Conservative MP Brian Storseth was unavailable for comment.

Martin points out that Parliament is responsible for making and changing the Commission’s structure, and MPs need to ensure that rules of evidence before the Commission are fair, and that a person being charged will have an ability to defend themselves fairly.

“There are a lot of good people in the country who can provide thoughtful, reasoned analysis, and solutions to the committee,” Martin says. “What I hope happens after that is that the committee produces a bi-partisan report that will give the government enough courage to make the changes that are required.”