The Supreme Court today issued a unanimous decision in Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott, found here.
A series of human rights complaints were filed against William Whatcott under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code for various flyers that he had been distributing in the community, expressing his dismay at the presence of “sodomites,” “filth and propaganda,” and “buggery” at local schools. Mr. Whatcott sought to challenge the constitutionality of the human rights complaints, arguing that they were incompatible with his Charter right to freedom of expression. A right that Mr. Whatcott believes in so fervently, by the way, that when in Ottawa for his Supreme Court hearing in 2011, he sought to distribute flyers throughout the Ottawa community, as reported here.
While striking down a portion of the Human Rights Code, the Supreme Court has otherwise upheld the validity of the hate speech provision in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, and in so doing, reminded us of why these protections remain useful. As expressed by Justice Rothstein:
“Hate speech is, at its core, an effort to marginalize individuals based on their membership in a group. Using expression that exposes the group to hatred, hate speech seeks to delegitimize group members in the eyes of the majority, reducing their social standing and acceptance within society. When people are vilified as blameworthy or undeserving, it is easier to justify discriminatory treatment. The objective of s. 14(1)(b) may be understood as reducing the harmful effects and social costs of discrimination by tackling certain causes of discriminatory activity.”
On the same day as the Whatcott decision, Ottawa has also learned that its new basketball team will not be named the “Tomahawks,” as originally announced yesterday. After a storm of public criticism about cultural appropriation and the racist connotations of the proposed name, the basketball team’s owner has issued a swift apology and a promise to provide a new name. At a press conference, the owner admitted: “Even posing the question of whether it’s racist or not racist, in my mind that’s enough to say, ‘You know, that’s not going to be a positive impact in our community’.”
The very concept of hate speech allows us to explore and debate why speech is offensive, what impact discriminatory words have on our society, and whether there are more positive means of naming and categorising things in our lives. It took ten years for William Whatcott to understand the offensive meaning of the words that he distributed in his community. It took Ottawa’s new basketball team one day. Let’s hope that the Whatcott decision lends us more speed and care in recognising where our words continue to fail.