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Canadian court ruling brings greater clarity to issue of hate speech

(CJFE/IFEX) - Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) welcomes the more clearly and narrowly defined definition of hate speech contained in today's decision [27 February 2013] by the Supreme Court in the case of Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. William Whatcott, but continues to be concerned that hate speech remains partially in the purview of the human rights tribunals.

As one of several intervenors in this case, CJFE expressed our concerns about the constitutionality and interpretation of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. The Supreme Court's ruling today was unanimous, and while not going as far as CJFE would have liked, does bring greater clarity to this issue.

"We were happy to see that CJFE's arguments about overbroad language were accepted by the court," said CJFE Board member and lawyer Peter Jacobsen. "However the decision still leaves the Human Rights tribunals with ability to restrict free speech, a role CJFE believes should be restricted to the courts with all of their procedural and constitutional safeguards."

Hate speech had been defined in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code as language "that exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person or class of persons on the basis of a prohibited ground." This decision recognized that the language is overly broad and struck down the section that included speech which "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity." The Supreme Court ruled that these words "unjustifiably infringe freedom of expression and finds them constitutionally invalid."

Also important, the Court recognizes that media reporting would ordinarily not fall within the prohibitions under the Saskatchewan legislation: "expression that targets a protected group in the context of news reports about hate speech perpetrated by someone else, would not likely constitute hate speech."

CJFE continues to hold the belief that the only arbiter of what constitutes hate speech should be our court system applying the law as set out in the Criminal Code. This would afford all involved the protections inherent in our judicial system and those accused, the benefit of the standard of reasonable doubt.

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