Rights laws outdated in Internet age, hearing told

TORONTO — An adjudicator of a human rights hearing into an Internet hate case expressed serious misgivings Monday about whether a provision used to attack hate speech can continue to exist in the Internet age.

The Human Rights Act provision permits anyone who objects to even a borderline case of alleged hate speech to expose the author to a costly, cumbersome human rights adjudication process, said Athansios Hadjis — who is presiding over a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal against Internet webmaster Marc Lemire.

Citing a recent case in which Maclean’s magazine columnist Mark Steyn defended himself against a complaint from a Muslim group, Mr. Hadjis said it may be all too easy for an individual to be “dragged through the process.”

Mr. Hadjis said that the controversial provision created to combat hate messages left on telephone machines operated by member of the far right — made sense in the past. However, he said that its usefulness may be in the past.

Hate messages on telephone message machines tended to be overt, he said, whereas the ocean of opinions on the Internet include many that are borderline cases of hate.

“Maybe the scale is tipping the other way,” Mr. Hadjis interjected during closing submissions at the Lemire hearing. “There is so much grey zone here that it may tip the scale back the other way.”

“Suddenly, the chilling effect catches not only individuals who set up telephone messages … but just about everyone who posts anything on the Internet,” Mr. Hadjis said. “What we have is the reality of the Internet — open to all; everyone participates …” he said.

The complaint against Mr. Lemire alleges that he exposed Jews, blacks, Italians, homosexuals and other groups to hatred or contempt by permitting hate-mongers to post virulent comments on his Internet message board.

Many of the messages on Mr. Lemire’s message board involved jokes that ridiculed racial groups as inferior, imbecilic or deserving of death. Some propagated vicious stereotypes, while others blamed them for global economic chaos or the spread of AIDS.

In one of the longer messages, the author claimed that homosexuals had willingly spread AIDS because of their “sleazy” sexual habits. “Innocents must die so that the sick sex games of a perverted minority may continue,” the author message said.

Mr. Lemire has challenged the constitutionality of the provision — s. 13 of the Human Rights Act — arguing that it is an unjustifiable restriction on free speech.



Globe and Mail Update
September 15, 2008 at 7:18 PM EDT