Ask the CCLA: Hate Speech or Free Speech?

May 12, 2015

This article is part of Ask the CCLA, a new CCLA resource that allows individuals to submit their civil liberties questions to the CCLA online. We respond to the most interesting and timely questions on this blog periodically. To learn more, read past questions or submit your own, visit the Ask the CCLA page. 

Dear CCLA,

 Last week I encountered a truck with a bumper sticker stating: “Save Ontario: SHOOT TORONTONIANS!”

I reported the experience to the RCMP – (who are the police force where I live), including a picture of the bumper and license plate, but the RCMP officer in question reported that this does not constitute a hate crime.

I think this is totally inconsistent with the Criminal Code: How could this kind of incitement of hatred and explicit calls to criminal action not be addressed by the criminal law.

Do you have a recommended course of action?

Dear Reader,

Thanks for reaching out!

We understand your concerns regarding the bumper sticker you saw, although we believe the sentiment it expresses was likely intended as a joke rather than a call to violence or a criminal threat. While we appreciate that you find the statement distasteful and offensive, the law sets a relatively high threshold before imposing criminal sanctions on statements.  Although there are sections of the Criminal Code that prohibit the incitement and promotion of hatred, Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of expression subject to reasonable limits. The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has dealt with the question of whether the hate speech provisions place a reasonable restriction on freedom of expression in a number of cases and have generally concluded that prohibiting hate speech is reasonable and justified.  However, in doing so, the Court has stressed that only the most extreme forms of speech constitute “hate speech”.  If you would like to read what the Court has said on this issue, I’d encourage you to look at their decisions in Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. Whatcott, R v. Keegstra, and Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Taylor, all available on the SCC website.

If you have concerns with how the RCMP handled your complaint, you can contact the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. The Commission advises that if you have concerns about the conduct of members of the RCMP in the performance of their policing duties, you have the right to make a complaint. If you have questions about the conduct of an RCMP member, you may call the Commission and discuss your concerns with one of the Commission staff. Instructions on how to go about either of these processes are available on the Commission’s website.

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