Fighting Hate Speech

The Quebec government tabled Bill 59, An Act to enact the Act to prevent and combat hate speech and speech inciting violence and to amend various legislative provisions to better protect individuals on June 10, 2015. The Bill prohibits publicly broadcasting hate speech or speech inciting violence aimed at a group of people protected from discrimination in Section 10 of the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Enabling or counseling such acts would also be prohibited.

The Bill would establish a new process to report hate speech or speech inciting violence to the commission, including measures to protect people making a complaint.

New investigation and penalty powers for commission

Bill 59 would give the Quebec Human Rights Commission more responsibilities, powers and tools to prosecute violators, including the powers to create a definition of hate speech, investigate hate speech and apply financial sanctions, among others.

The legislation would also allow the Commission to apply to a court for “any emergency measure” if the Commission has “reason to believe” that a threat to “health or safety” exists. This will allow the Commission to “put an end to the threat.”

The law would further allow the commission to ask for a stop to the dissemination of such speech and permit the creation of an online list containing names of anyone convicted of promoting hate.

Education investigations

The Bill proposes to give the Minister of Education the power to investigate threats to the physical or emotional safety of students in preschool, primary education, high school and college. The commission would presume guilty anyone whose name is on the conviction list in the case of threats to students.

A school that does not act on reasonable reports of threats to students’ safety could lose its subsidies or its license.

Forced marriages and excessive control over youth

The Bill also aims to prevent forced marriages. A person of 16 or 17 would require the permission of a judge to be married.

Finally, the Bill provides that the Youth Protection Act be more explicit about the fact that excessive control can be a form of psychological abuse. It clarifies the role of the director of youth protection in respect of a child and his or her parents who need help, but whose situation does not otherwise justify the application of the law. And it includes measures to increase confidentiality of certain information about a child when the situation requires it.

What does this mean?

In a press release, the government says the Bill is a response to three things: the attacks against Canadian soldiers in Quebec and in Ottawa last autumn; to young Quebecers joining or attempting to join jihadist groups in the Middle East; and to a public backlash against the Muslim community.

Public consultations are currently being held before the national assembly resumes sitting. Many support the intention of the Bill, but question whether it is necessary and whether it will really help combat the spread of hate.

For many stakeholders, including groups the Bill aims to protect, the increased restriction on free speech is a step too far to fight religious extremism, radicalization, racism and violent extremists.

The Bill has merits, but it is not clear what the government means by “hate speech”. It says:

The purpose of this Act is to establish measures for preventing and combatting hate speech and speech inciting violence…that are engaged in or disseminated publicly and that target a group of people sharing a characteristic identified as prohibited grounds for discrimination under section 10 of the Charter of human rights and freedoms (chapter C-12).”

Leaving the commission to interpret the law is tricky and may end up causing more conflicts than resolve them. How will the commission balance free speech and censorship?

The final outcome of the public consultations should be very interesting—and the government’s response

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