Top court to rule in landmark hate-speech case

The Supreme Court of Canada



OTTAWA -- Canada's top court will rule Wednesday on a controversial case that could shake up human-rights commissions and hate-speech laws cross Canada.

The case, centred around born-again Christian and anti-gay pamphleteer and protester Bill Whatcott, pits freedom of speech advocates against hate-speech watchdogs.

The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission vs. Whatcott case some 16 months ago, in Oct. 2011.

The commission brought the case to Canada's highest court after losing to Whatcott when he appealed a fine it imposed on him for pamphlets he distributed in Regina and Saskatoon in 2001 and 2002.

Four people filed complaints against him at the human-rights commission, arguing the flyers promoted hatred against homosexuals.

In 2005, the commission fined Whatcott $17,500.

Whatcott, who wilfully admits his flyers and protest signs are geared to shock, claims religious freedom for his activities and has received the support of religious groups like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

"We don't necessarily condone the language Mr. Whatcott used, but we do firmly believe that every Canadian should be at liberty to share their beliefs and participate in the democratic process from a faith-inspired perspective," Don Hutchinson, the fellowship's vice-president, said Tuesday.

Civil liberties organizations intervening in the case also warned current hate-speech laws in some jurisdictions -- including Saskatchewan -- are too broad and have a chilling effect on media and public debate.

Bruce Ryder, with York University's Osgoode Law School, expects the court to reign in Saskatchewan's hate-speech law.

"It's very poorly drafted from the perspective of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said.

"It prohibits speech that not only is hateful but also that belittles and ridicules an individual or a group and that just seems ridiculous that it would be legally prescribed," he said.

The ruling could also have an immediate impact on human-rights commissions in Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories that have similar provisions in their legislation.

Current top court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote the dissenting opinion when the Supreme Court last heard a hate- speech case in 1990.

"It was a very powerful dissent, arguing it's just not possible to interpret the word hatred without chilling a great deal of valuable and important political expression," Ryder said.

Still, he expects McLachlin to walk a finer line in Wednesday's ruling.

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