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Blog January 28, 2019

Winning the battle but losing the war: Your Ward News conviction a win against hate? 

The editor and publisher of Your Ward News willfully promoted hatred against Jews and women. This is both a plainly obvious conclusion to draw after a 30 second review of the "paper" and the decision of a recent criminal case against the editor and publisher. While much of the public response to the conviction has celebrated it as a victory against hate, history may prove otherwise. 

From a purely principled democratic perspective, it is not worth celebrating the criminalization of any speech. Criminalizing speech is best left to authoritarian regimes, theocracies and weak democracies. This is not a point that I will stress here, as what follows is a brief analysis of why suppressing hate speech is ineffective from a practical perspective. However, I would note a quote from American legal legend and former US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: 

"History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure."

The current polarization of our society and the rise of bigotry are cause for urgent concern, but not at the expense of our liberty. 

From a practical perspective, suppressing hate speech has not proven effective. Consider notorious Canadian anti-Semite James Keegstra. Keegstra was a high school teacher from Alberta who taught his students various anti-Semitic notions, which do not need to be repeated here. Keegstra was eventually charged and convicted for unlawfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group (the same criminal provision that convicted the Your Ward News editor and publisher). The highly publicized legal battle against Keegstra lasted 12 years including a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court of Canada. 

However, it can be argued that Keegstra actually benefited from the 12 years worth of on-and-off publicity where his views were constantly up for public consumption. The sentence that Keegstra eventually received was quite light - a one-year suspended sentence, one year of probation, and 200 hours of community service work. The litigation allowed Keegstra and those like him to position themselves as martyrs. Considering Keegstra had already been removed from his teaching position two years prior to criminal prosecution, it can easily be argued that prosecuting him threw gas on a dying flame. 

Similarly, the editor Your Ward News has clearly positioned himself as a public martyr, stating:

“I have to say that 2,000 years ago, a man very similar to me was hauled up on hate speech charges by the Pharisees ...Two thousand years later, I’m being hauled on hate speech charges and we are going to be crucified very soon.”

He added: “I consider it an honour and a blessing to suffer for the same crime that Jesus suffered for, which was hate speech.”

It is quite obvious that he was looking to be setup as a public martyr. The trial decision notes the defendants agreed to the facts that Jews and women were "identifiable groups" (an element of the legal test). Furthermore, media reports note that the editor and publisher during the trial acted as "pair of hateful school boys, giggling at the dirty bits" and the editor was "smirking at his own cleverness".

It is not hard to see that a conviction plays right into their hands. What's more troubling is the decision also notes that Your Ward News is financed by donations from entities in Canada and the United States. In May 2018, the editor stated that he is a "fearless, obsessed man with VERY DEEP POCKETS who is loved and admired by MANY WEALTHY SYMPATHIZERS". 

Throwing the editor and publisher in jail or fining them only deepens their resolve and will likely strengthen their support from sympathizers. Prosecution for hate speech does not work. A very salient and alarming example is that hate speech laws did not prevent the rise of the Nazis in pre-Hitler Germany. Canadian legal legend and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin, notes as such in her dissent in the Keegstra case:

“Historical evidence also gives reason to be suspicious of the claim that hate propaganda laws contribute to the cause of multiculturalism and equality. This evidence is summarized by A. A. Borovoy, When Freedoms Collide: The Case for our Civil Liberties (1988), at p. 50: 

Remarkably, pre-Hitler Germany had laws very much like the Canadian anti-hate law. Moreover, those laws were enforced with some vigour. During the fifteen years before Hitler came to power, there were more than two hundred prosecutions based on anti-semitic speech. And, in the opinion of the leading Jewish organization of that era, no more than 10 per cent of the cases were mishandled by the authorities. As subsequent history so painfully testifies, this type of legislation proved ineffectual on the one occasion when there was a real argument for it. Indeed, there is some indication that the Nazis of pre-Hitler Germany shrewdly exploited their criminal trials in order to increase the size of their constituency. They used the trials as platforms to propagate their message.”

So what does work? Counterspeech. 

It is absolutely necessary that the ideas espoused by those propagating hate should be challenged. However, they should be challenged with speech. Free expression is the bedrock of our democracy and should be used as a tool to prevent hate. While it is unfortunate that many bigots set themselves up as free speech martyrs we cannot play right into their hands. We need to meet hate speech with counterspeech. This is difficult, but it works. 

A recent example is chronicled in the book Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. The book tells the story of Derek Black, once considered the "leading light" of the white nationalist movement in the USA. The book is an excellent read and illustrates the effectiveness of befriending bigots and slowly dismantling their ideology through both debate, but probably more important - relationships. Interestingly, two individuals that had a profound impact on Black after befriending him were a devout Jew and a woman. 

Silencing bigots does not make them go away. They are part of our society. Isolating them will likely breed more hate. They need to be engaged with, not made martyrs. We need to use our voices - argument, debate, protest and even befriend to make clear that hate is unacceptable in our society. Criminalizing hate speech is at least ineffective and more often counterproductive.