Limits to free speech
Last week, a Quesnel man was found guilty of criminal hate speech for anti-Jewish postings to his website.
Arthur Topham’s RadicalPress website is packed with the kind of “commentary” you have to read to disbelieve. Many of us imagine we know the sorts of slanders being purveyed in the dusty corners of the internet. You can’t imagine.
In addition to his own material, Topham has made it his side-business to repatriate from the crevices of discarded ideas and republish some of history’s forgotten anti-Jewish hate literature.
Topham was found guilty by a jury under Section 319 (2) of the Criminal Code, which pertains to “Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group.…” He will be sentenced next year.
The law does not go so far as to demand proof of incitement to injure or kill. Yet, among other gems, Topham’s postings call for “the extermination of Israel and all Jews.” In his defence, Topham’s lawyer insisted his client does not actually hate individual Jews. Indeed, he told court, Topham’s wife is Jewish.
Canada’s hate laws are controversial. Where to draw the line between fair comment in a free society and that which is to be criminalized is a very difficult balance. Generally, it is best to confront hateful ideas in the marketplace of ideas and to give them enough air that we can know they exist, and not drive them underground where they can corrode into even worse words and deeds.
This case was addressed under criminal law and not by the quasi-judicial human right apparatus, which is a far more dubious medium. Limitations on free expression should be limited to the most extreme and egregious offences. Indeed, this is the first criminal conviction for hate speech in British Columbia since 2006, so it is a rebuke that is reserved for the most heinous offences.
A democratic society expresses its values in its laws. Incidents like this, which meet the standard of intolerable expressions of hate, are a message from and to our society about what is fair comment and what is not.
On the whole, however, we prefer that our society express its commitment to equal treatment and cross-cultural respect in the context of our civil discourse – in our education system, in the free exploration of contentious issues, in the vocal condemnation by the many of any egregious offences by the hateful few. And that is what we do. In the most extreme instances, our society has agreed to a legal proscription.
Topham’s case will send a message, although it is already being rejected by his advocates as the demolition of free speech in Canada and as the manifestation of Jewish power.
As a society, we should accept the court’s verdict, but also rededicate ourselves to the promotion of intercultural respect. Comments under the story in the local Quesnel newspaper, almost unanimously of the “Jews control the world” variety, suggest we still have a long way to go.