The Noxious Fruits of Hate Speech laws

A Canadian government investigation into a newspaper publisher reveals how tyrannical and dangerous such laws are.

Published January 13, 2008 12:25PM (EST)

(updated below)

I've written several times before about the oppressive, dangerous hate speech laws which are common -- increasingly so -- in both Canada and Europe, whereby the Government is empowered to punish as criminals citizens who express offensive or otherwise prohibited political views. But here is a visceral illustration of what these sorts of laws engender that ought to give great pause even to proponents of such laws.

Ezra Levant is a right-wing Canadian neoconservative who publishes Western Standard, a typical warmongering, pro-Likud journal -- a poor man's Weekly Standard for Canadian neocons. In February, 2006, he published the Danish Mohammed cartoons, which prompted an Islamic group's imam to file a complaint (.pdf) against Levant with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, charging Levant with "advocating hatemongering cartoons in the media," and the imam specifically accused Levant of "defaming me and my family because we follow and are related to Prophet Mohammed."

Rather than dismiss the complaint as a blatant attempt to punish free thought and free speech, the Alberta Human Rights Commission announced that it would investigate. To do so, they compelled Levant to appear before a government agent and be interrogated about the cartoons he published, his thoughts and intent in publishing them, and the other circumstances surrounding his "behavior." Under the law, the Commission has the power to impose substantial fines and other penalties on Levant.

The hearing was closed to the public -- only his lawyer and wife were allowed to attend -- but Levant insisted on recording the proceedings and was directed by the Commission not to publish the video, but he did so anyway. Here are the noxious fruits of hate speech laws: a citizen being forced to appear before the Government in order to be interrogated by an agent of the State -- a banal, clerical bureaucrat -- about what opinions he expressed and why he expressed them, upon pain of being punished under the law. This is nothing short of stomach-turning:

Technically, the complaint was filed under Canada's anti-discrimination and "human rights" legislation, but political life in Canada has seen numerous prosecutions for political opinions under that country's oppressive hate speech laws (.pdf). Government investigations for political opinions are thus an accepted part of their political culture.

A similar complaint was recently filed against Mark Steyn, arising out of the publication in Maclean's of an excerpt from his odious book, America Alone. That complaint was also filed by a Canadian Muslim group, claiming that the passage "misrepresents Canadian Muslims' values, their community, and their religion." Steyn will also now likely be hauled before some government tribunal, forced to account for the ideas and opinions he expressed, incur substantial attorney fees in defending himself, and be subjected to the trauma of some government proceeding against him which can result in numerous punishments.

People like Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant are some of the most pernicious commentators around. But equally pernicious, at least, are those who advocate laws that would proscribe and punish political expression, and those who exploit those laws to try use the power of the State to impose penalties on those expressing "offensive" or "insulting" or "wrong" political ideas. The mere existence of the "investigation," interrogation, and proceeding itself is a grotesque affront to every basic liberty.

For those unable to think past the (well-deserved) animosity one has for the specific targets in question here, all one needs to do instead is imagine these proceedings directed at opinions and groups that one likes. If Muslim groups can trigger government investigations due to commentary they find offensive, so, too, can conservative Christian or right-wing Jewish groups, or conservative or neoconservative groups, or any other political faction seeking to restrict and punish speech it dislikes.

Down that ugly path lies people like Newt Gingrich, openly advocating that the First Amendment be narrowed considerably to exclude advocacy of "radical Islam" as a means of combating terrorism. People who favor and seek to exploit Canadian and European hate speech laws are but opposite sides of the same tyrannical coin as Gingrich and his allies who are eager to restrict political expression here.

All sorts of valid criticisms are frequently voiced, including by me, about the erosion of basic protections and individual liberties in the U.S. But that doesn't mitigate or detract in any way from how oppressive these sorts of Canadian and European laws are. One of the core political values is and should always remain that which Justice Robert Jackson defined in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943):

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Empowering the State to proscribe and punish speech is not only the most dangerous step a society can take -- though it is that -- it's also the most senseless. It never achieves its intended effect of suppressing or eliminating a particular view. If anything, it has the opposite effect, by driving it underground, thus preventing debate and exposure. Worse, it converts its advocates into martyrs -- as one sees from the hero-worship now surrounding people like Levant and Steyn, who now become self-glorifying symbols of individual liberty rather than what they are: hateful purveyors of a bitter, destructive, authoritarian ideology.

There are numerous ways to combat advocacy of rancid ideas. Using the power of the Government to force people to "justify" their opinions to government tribunals and face punishment for them is, by far, the most malevolent -- far more dangerous than the expression of any particular idea could ever be.

UPDATE: Law Professor David Bernstein previously noted that Canada's hate speech laws have had unintended consequences, as such laws inevitably do:

Moreover, left-wing academics are beginning to learn firsthand what it's like to have their own censorship vehicles used against them. For example, University of British Columbia Prof. Sunera Thobani, a native of Tanzania, faced a hate-crimes investigation after she launched into a vicious diatribe against American foreign policy. Thobani, a Marxist feminist and multiculturalism activist, had remarked that Americans are "bloodthirsty, vengeful and calling for blood." The Canadian hate-crimes law was created to protect minority groups from hate speech. But in this case, it was invoked to protect Americans.

Just like Bush followers who bizarrely think that the limitless presidential powers they're cheering on will only be wielded by political leaders they like, many hate speech law proponents convince themselves that such laws will only be used to punish speech they dislike. That is never how tyrannical government power works.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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