Should Hate Speech be a Crime?

April 2004

You know a public lecture is controversial when audience members rise from their seats to yell at the speaker giving the address.

On Wednesday night, the department of Jewish Studies presented the annual Rosen Lecture at Grant Hall. This year's speaker was Edward Greenspan, arguably one of Canada's best, and most controversial, criminal lawyers. As a defence lawyer, some of Greenspan's past clients include Robert Latimer and former Nova Scotia Premier Gerald Regan.

Greenspan has hosted television shows about legal justice on the CBC, as well as given speeches at the Empire Club of Canada, the zenith of Canadian public performance. His appearance at Queen's was heavily hyped and approximately 400 people filled Grant Hall to hear him speak about hate speech and the Canadian legal process. Greenspan was unambiguous in his stance.

"More freedom of speech is the weapon against hate-mongers, not less," he said.

Greenspan argued that the Canadian political climate is increasingly unable to distinguish between thought and action, and that many Canadians are oversensitive and too easily offended by mere words.”

"Somehow, liberal means nice," he said. "That impression is, in my view, totally misguided." Greenspan denied the validity of the principle, "Thou shalt not hurt others with words.”

"This principle is a mess," he argued.

While hate speech is despicable and hate-speakers should be shamed and despised, Greenspan said, hate speech laws actually prohibit freedom of speech and should be removed from the Criminal Code of Canada.

"I would take the Criminal Code of Canada and squish it down to half its size," he said.

Greenspan used examples from both international law and Canadian history to illustrate his point that laws designed to prevent hate speech can actually give the groups who perpetrate hate speech a higher profile, thus undermining the spirit of the law. By putting on trial figures such as Ernst Zundel, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier, society is giving them a public platform on which to stand, instead of allowing them to languish in obscurity. A central question Greenspan sought to address was the process by which society separates fairbeliefs from unfair ones. "How do we sort fair beliefs from lunatic ones?" he asked.

Greenspan proposed five possibilities: the funda-mentalist view, which holds that some people have access to absolute truths; the egalitarian view, which holds that equality should be elevated above all else; the radical egalitarian view, which holds that there should be special treatment for historically disadvantaged groups; the humanitarian view, which holds that society should wish above all else to do no harm; and the liberal view, which holds that only free and open debate should decide what is right.

"I believe the last view is the only right one," Greenspan argued. "Hate speech is antithetical to notions of liberal democracy."

Greenspan argued that verbally causing hurt should not immediately be labeled a crime. Greenspan advocated that society adhere to a "moral obligation," postulating that individuals in a democracy have to be thick-skinned, and that individual liberty should not be sacrificed upon the altar of acceptable speech.

"I think I know something of the pain that the Zundels of the world have caused," Greenspan said, noting that he is Jewish and has several friends who lost relatives during the Holocaust.

Greenspan made clear he totally disagrees with the content of anti-Semitic views, branding Zundel as "filth of the lowest order." However, he lambasted the concept that by supporting free speech, individuals are also inadvertently supporting the views that are expressed by hate-mongering parties.

Instead, his argument was that hate speech laws can be too easily abused to harm the people they are meant to protect. He cited examples in Canada, such as a case in Quebec concerning French Canadians who were prosecuted for publishing satirical pamphlets. The pamphlets made fun of their own culture as a response to the English majority in the area. The French Canadians were persecuted because their beliefs were believed to incite hate. Greenspan endeavoured to show the limitations of the courtroom and trials that focused on proving whether a given history occurred were useless as the resulting verdicts applied only to a given time and space. No one trial or guilty verdict will eliminate all hateful speech; the only safe guard is more free speech, he said.

Instead, he argued truth could be found in the faith that freedom will prevail. "Truth does not prevail as part of a prosecution of a hate crime," Greenspan said. "Truth can only be proven by living it out."

Using quotations from John Milton, Greenspan forwarded the idea that truth is not infallible, but that given a choice between laws that favour the power of the majority to determine what is acceptable or laws that favour freedom of speech for everyone ─ Greenspan believes we should choose the latter. Greenspan argued reasoned people must be allowed to freely expose themselves to hateful or disagreeable speech and decide for themselves whether the ideas are worth accepting.

"I read Mein Kampf; I did not become a Nazi," he said. "I read Das Kapital; I did not become a communist."