Walking a very thin line

After reading Ms. El-Kadri’s letter below, I found myself wondering what, if anything, I could add to drive the point home. The fact is, the incident in question speaks for itself. I don’t need to remind anyone that racist or phobic comments are unacceptable, and I don’t think anyone needs reminding. All you have to do is envision yourself in the situation Ms. El-Kadri described. Picture yourself standing in your own library while someone insults you for—well, for being you.

What struck me, and what Ms. El-Kadri remarked, was how our rights as Canadians fit into the picture. The aggressor in the library incident quickly justified her initial racist comment by arguing that it was acceptable, as it falls under our right to freedom of expression. Ms. El-Kadri disagrees, arguing that it amounts to hate speech that is, as she reminds us, punishable by law.

I have heard this argument in the past (see the comments section of our website), and I find that most of the time, neither party actually knows what our hate speech laws entail. Maybe it’s because they never took the chance to find out about them. Let me save you the suspense: The line between free speech and hate speech in Canada is murky at best. Unlike the United States, where freedom of speech is protected under the First Amendment and includes very strong provisions (why do you think KKK rallies are permissible?), Canada’s hate speech laws, and the circumstances under which they come into effect, are much less clear.

In practice, our human rights commissions are the ones who first decide what incidents count as hate speech (of course, decisions can be appealled all the way to the Supreme Court). While their decisions are based on the current hate speech laws (which were set in 1990), they remain discretionary. There have been allegations that the decisions passed down from these commissions have tended to favour one minority over another—likely due to the prevalent societal factors at the time. What I take from this is that hate speech, and how we come to define it, is as much a cultural issue as a legal one.

Having said that, I don’t think that the incident Ms. El-Kadri mentions can be defined as hate speech. Nor does it legally fall under freedom of expression, simply because the offender didn’t publicly express anything, seeing as it was essentially a private conversation. It was an ignorant statement from an ignorant person and should be treated as such. Had the person gone around campus spouting racial epithets, perhaps then would their right to expression be called into question. As it stands, there probably isn’t any legal violation—the closest would be our university’s Code of Student Conduct.

What we should take from all of this is the understanding that yes, there are stupid, hurtful people around, even on our campus. That’s why we have programs like eXpression Against Oppression, which are designed to promote inclusion and hopefully teach people that being an ignorant asshole is still not okay. It seems some students didn’t get the memo.


Michael Di Leo

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