(Photo courtesy EFC)
In what many are already deeming a landmark decision, Canada's highest court has ruled that laws placing legal limits on inflammatory speech will remain on the books.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously Wednesday that "hate speech" laws are a constitutionally valid limitation on free speech in the country albeit with the proper process in place.
Don Hutchinson, vice president and General Legal Counsel with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, intervened on the case, known as Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. William Whatcott.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Hutchinson explained the significance of the decision laid out by the SCC in the Whatcott case.
"The Supreme Court of Canada has narrowed the scope of hate speech for the purpose of non-criminal complaints and clarifying the test to be used by courts and tribunals assessing hate speech," said Hutchinson.
"In the process, the court has also commented on the limits to the robust freedoms of religion and expression in the context of a free and democratic society."
Hutchinson also told CP that the EFC got involved in the case "with a focus on protecting free expression motivated by religious beliefs and principles."
"Much controversy has arisen because human rights tribunals are not always composed of people who have legal training so decisions have been inconsistent," said Hutchinson.
"Our desire is to protect and proactively promote the freedoms of pronouncement from the pulpit and participation in the public square; essential components of freedom of religion and evangelical expression."
In 2001 and 2002, William Whatcott of the group Christian Truth Activists passed out flyers with messages against homosexuality and abortion in some neighborhoods of Saskatchewan. A complaint was filed against Whatcott over the content of a couple of his flyers and he was brought before the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
In 2005, the tribunal of the Saskatchewan HRC declared Whatcott guilty of violating the HRC Code and fined him the equivalent of $17,500. This decision was upheld by the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench in December 2007. However, in February 2010 the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overruled the previous decisions and by October 2010 the case ended up before the SCC.
In their decision, the SCC did strike down some of the language in the code, namely the banning of speech that "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of" certain groups. The fine against Whatcott was reinstated.
David Arnot, chief commissioner for the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, said in a statement that he was "very pleased" with the SCC's decision.
"We are very pleased that the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the validity of our human rights legislation, recognizing it strikes the proper balance between freedom of expression and freedom from the fear that comes with hate-filled speech," said Arnot.
"We hope that our legislation serves as a model of best practice for other provinces to follow suit."
According to Saskatchewan HRC, prosecutions of cases similar to the Whatcott complaint are seldom pursued.
"The SHRC has prosecuted only five cases relating to the dissemination of hate in the last 32 years and considers prosecution a tool to be used sparingly and judiciously and only in the most extreme cases," Saskatchewan HRC said Wednesday.
As to the long-term effects of the Whatcott case, Hutchinson of EFC told CP that he believed the decision would influence the codes of Canadian provinces other than Saskatchewan.
"I expect to see those Canadian provinces and territories that don't currently have a hate speech provision in their human rights legislation add one that mirrors the wording approved by the Supreme Court in this decision," said Hutchinson.
"Interestingly, while this case has been in the courts the Canadian Parliament has been processing a bill that will remove the identical section from our federal Human Rights Act."