This post originally appeared on Techdirt.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has refused to enforce a controversial internet hate speech law, claiming that it’s unconstitutional. The tribunal adjudicator, Athanasios Hadjis, expressed worry back in March about the “chilling effects” that Section 13 of the Canada Human Rights Act would have on the internet. In his ruling Wednesday, he decided that the restriction imposed by Section 13 “is not a reasonable limit” within the meaning of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and thus, unconstitutional. Since the tribunal isn’t a real court, it can’t actually strike down the law, so Hadjis just refused to impose any penalty.
Section 13 prohibits the repeated communication of “any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” via telephone or — since 2001 anti-terrorism measures — the internet. The section is quite controversial; neither truth nor intent are a defense, and it’s not part of the criminal code, so it tends to become a vehicle for cases that wouldn’t stand a chance in a real court. Last fall, an independent review commissioned by the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself called for Section 13 to be repealed (an epic whitewash fail), and some politicians have begun to ask for the same. For serious issues, there are other hate speech provisions in the criminal code with real defenses, handled in real courts. Section 13 makes it too easy for someone to be “dragged through the process,” as Hadjis puts it.
Not only is the section controversial, but its application to the web has been clumsy at best. Hadjis said, when applied to speech online, “suddenly, the chilling effect catches not only individuals who set up telephone messages… but just about everyone who posts anything on the internet.” Hadjis notes that telephone hate messages tend to be overt, while opinions on the internet include many borderline cases. Part of the problem is that there are no safe harbors in Canadian law (or “safe harbours,” as we Canadians would call them). Hadjis was concerned that website owners could be charged under Section 13 for user comments on message boards and blog posts. While this particular website owner doesn’t seem like all that nice of a guy (to be charitable…), twisting the law to make a site owner responsible for user posts would have set a terrible precedent. Hadjis, thankfully, had the common sense to avoid that error. Hopefully Section 13 is repealed soon, and other tribunal adjudicators take note of Hadjis’ ruling in the meantime.
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