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Tagged: free speech

Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Declares Internet Hate Speech Law Unconstitutional

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fall, an independent review commissioned by the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself called for Section 13 to be repealed (an epic whitewash fail), and some politicians have begun to ask for the same.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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Student On Probation For Expressing A Negative Opinion About An Instructor On Facebook

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

A student at the University of Calgary was put on academic probation for making the following post on a group titled, “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with [instructor’s name]:”

[Instructor’s name] IS NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES AT THE U OF C!!!!! Remember when she told us she was a long-term prof? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it .. lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a [instructor’s name]-free legacy for future [law and society] students.

It’s pretty hard to see how this isn’t just an expression of opinion, but the university thinks it qualifies as non-academic misconduct. The problem is, it’s not at all clear how. The only part of the definition that doesn’t involve injury, damage or theft is “conduct which seriously disrupts the lawful educational and related activities of other students and/or University staff.” It’s hard to see how a Facebook post of this nature “seriously disrupts” much of anything (until someone gets put on probation and the Streisand Effect kicks in). But there’s a nice little “includes but is not limited to” that makes the definition non-exhaustive, which is likely what university officials are relying on. You’d think that other instances of misconduct would be similar (hurting people, breaking stuff, stealing, “serious disruptions”), but apparently “expressions of opinion that we don’t like” can qualify…

A computer science professor interviewed said the posts “can be compared to putting up notices all over the university campus” (quoting the article, not the prof). But this is more like putting up a notice off campus (albeit in public). It may not have been nice, but it’s pretty troubling that a student’s right to express an opinion (free speech much?) on a third-party site is overridden without a clear policy violation.

I’ve had direct experience with this sort of thing. A couple years ago, friends of mine at another university were sent ominous emails and hauled into their department head’s office over some comments about a professor on Facebook (jokes, e.g. “crazy drunk [instructor A] is better than boring stoned [instructor B]!”). The department heads argued that the comments were “visible to the community” (similar to the “notices on campus” argument), but they clearly didn’t understand the context (wall post or message? profile or group?) or privacy settings, and they couldn’t even locate the comments on the site (someone had copied and pasted them into an email). They, too, failed to specify how any policies were actually violated (or even which ones), yet they’d gone ahead and notified the professor of the students’ comments and identities (while there was still grading to be done). We convinced them to back down and apologize, but it took a solid week, mid-semester, to deal with the mess.

Universities should understand and develop policies about social networking sites before they take action against students. If they can’t be clear about what qualifies as misconduct, how can students expect to know? What’s the difference between a Facebook group and study group? An email and a Facebook message? What difference do privacy settings make (hopefully some…)? How was this post on a Facebook group different from a review on RateMyProfessors.com? What’s the difference between off-campus speech and speech on non-school websites? Before policing student speech off-site (problematic in and of itself), universities should at least ask these questions and develop policies first. It doesn’t seem like many of them have. It’s pretty ridiculous to just throw social networking under the ambiguous “but not limited to” umbrella.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Canadian Federation of Students gladly aids members in blocking free speech, assuming what needs to be proven

(This post originally appeared on the UofT Students for Life blog.)

The York Federation of Students’ (YFS) motion to ban “anti-choice” groups from using student union resources or space has successfully been accepted by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The motion reads:

Be it resolved that member locals [of the CFS] that refuse to allow anti-choice organizations access to their resources and space be supported. And further, be it resolved that a pro-choice organization kit be created that may include materials such as a fact sheet, buttons, contact information for local pro-choice organizations and research on anti-choice organizations and the conservative think-tanks that fund them.

This means that the CFS supports any of its members who wish to ban “anti-choice” groups from campus. The decision was made during the summer, when most students aren’t around to participate in any decision making process. Not that the CFS or YFS did any polls or surveys to substantiate their claims that most students support this. The York administration does not support this attack on free speech, and Robert J. Tiffin (York’s Vice President of students) said that the administration would try to compensate by providing its own venues and resources to legitimate debates.

Joseph Brean interviewed Michael Payton, the York student who argued the pro-choice side in the March debate:

I think it’s outrageous that they do this when students are away for the summer and when they can’t really do anything about it…. This isn’t the right of the student government to be deciding what students are allowed to hear… [It is] very much an open question how in-line they are with what students really think and feel.

It would be one thing if the YFS were doing polls on this. At least then they would be able to justify the claim that most people would be on board. But even if most people were on board, if 90% of students were on board, I would still think it’s wrong in principle. When the YFS says they believe in free speech, they believe in free speech for them, for the positions they hold, not for freedom of speech for positions they disagree with.

I wonder if the CFS or YFS would support a similar ban with respect to their tendency to favour free speech when it comes to “Israeli Apartheid” events…

The decision itself is, again, practically self-refuting. The use of the term “anti-choice” is Orwellian enough. This is a ban on clubs that are “against choice”. Against what kind of choice? I suppose we’re not allowed to ask that anymore.

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