Hate speech is best fought with a pen (National Post, April 21, 2004)

There are so many things wrong with hate speech laws in general that it hardly matters whether Bill C-250 is passed now or later. Nevertheless, C-250, which adds "sexual orientation" to the categories of colour, race, religion and ethnic origin already protected against promotion of hatred in the Criminal Code, provides particular causes for concern.

For one thing, the term "sexual orientation" is ambiguous. Might NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) one day seek protection under C-250 from censure of pedophilia? Officially pedophilia is a diagnostic "disorder" according to the Canadian Psychiatric Association, but so was homosexuality 30 years ago.

Also known as the "chill bill," C-250 is closely identified with endorsement for gay marriage, as both bills were approved last September in the Commons within a day of each other. Those like me who believe in social acceptance and legal parity, but not marriage, for gays -- as well as Bible literalists who consider homosexuality itself a reversible aberration -- fear open disapproval of gay rights or activities on any grounds will soon become a criminal offence.

The public example set by the bill's political backers, some of whom exhibit naked hate for their Christian opponents, is hardly reassuring. A blatant example is that of gay Senator Laurier Lapierre who railed at Christian protesters: "You people are sick. God should strike you dead." Now I consider that hateful speech, but I wouldn't want to curtail Lapierre's right to say it.

The proven danger is not hate speech, but the failure to prosecute hate crime vigorously. Hate-fuelled violence against minorities in North America is rare, though. Most recorded hate crimes, however ethically vile, involve no physical assault. Like the recent Montreal Jewish school firebombing, they aim to (and do) intimidate. Of 1,022,492 crimes of aggravated assault in the United States in 1997, 8,049 were classified as hate crimes. Of those, eight were murders.

Almost every murder has a hate "constituency." Everyone knows about gay Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death and "crucified" in Laramie, Wyo. About a year later, a pregnant young girl in the same district was viciously stabbed to death by her lover for refusing an abortion. We didn't hear about her, but to anti-abortionists, that's a hate crime too. Another amendment?

Even the hate-filled rant against Jews by social cretin David Ahenakew was not incitement to violence. Though collective disgust swelled, as soon as a criminal charges possibility was raised, reaction stalled, then deflated. Ahenakew should have been stripped of his Order of Canada, the only appropriate punishment, as most bigots fear social humiliation more than legal penalties. That's why Holocaust denier Jim Keegstra's endless trials were counterproductive, since he had already been decertified as a teacher and ousted as town mayor. Exposure in court is often an intoxicant to narcissistic bigots, as Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel regularly demonstrates.

Because our laws privilege the listener's interpretation, I worry that my disapproval of gay marriage may be a litigious homosexual's idea of hate speech. But if we must have hate speech laws, opinions based on religious texts shouldn't get a free pass. The C-250 exemption for religiously based arguments gives a higher standing to arguments from Leviticus than to science. A priest could cite homosexuality as an "abomination" in church, but a medical scientist might feel "chilled" in reporting that gays are at far greater risk than straights for certain diseases. A minister could rail against gay marriage, but a sociologist might legitimately fear intimidation in suggesting children are better off with a mother and father than with single-gender parents.

As the repository of mankind's highest values, the Bible also contains God-approved acts of ethnic cleansing, indulgence of slavery and adulterer-stoning, along with the "abomination" of homosexuality. Liberal churches and synagogues have grasped the nettle on democratically unacceptable biblical anachronisms and, despite congregational strife, have quarantined those precepts at odds with contemporary values. But fundamentalists, obsessed with the homosexuality file, have sidestepped inconsistencies. The Bible contains no strictures against lesbianism, for example. But there hasn't been any internal debate amongst fundamentalist Christians on the political implications of this omission.

More worryingly, the Bible is but one religious text. At York University last year, anti-Islamist expert Daniel Pipes was taken aside by police for warnings about Canada's hate speech regarding Muslims, a "chill" to future speakers, while imams may use the Koran as a shield in belittling infidels or to condone wife-beating. No: Better no exemptions and no hate speech laws.

Speech laws can't prevent crimes. Pre-war Germany had strict hate speech laws, after all. Countering the scourge of hate speech is every citizen's personal responsibility. Against hate crime, let the police take up the sword; against hate speech, let the people take up their pens.

© National Post 2004