Illustration: Jennifer Vo
The government’s new anti-terrorism legislation (Bill C-51) is causing a stir among free speech advocates in Canada. Some have taken issue with the bill’s proposal to criminalize the promotion of terrorism, which some say could be easily interpreted to suppress legitimate free speech. Is this new legislation putting a chill on our civil liberties, or can free speech be partially sacrificed in order to maintain a civil and safe society?
Certain free speech limits are healthy
As soon as the Conservative government unveiled their new anti-terrorism legislation, headlines were awash with the claim that it infringed on Canadians’ freedom of expression. This kind of rhetoric is completely ignorant of pre-existing Canadian laws, and this bill’s power to disrupt online messages should be carefully examined in relation to domestic security.
First of all, while this new legislation proposes to criminalize the promotion of terrorist propaganda, one has to ask if it’s really that different from the laws we already have.
Section one of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms already grants the government the right to pass laws that can limit the freedom of expression, as long as these limits can be reasonably justified. A notable example of this is Canada’s hate speech laws, which limit speech through the Criminal Code of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
These laws prohibit discrimination based on ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, and disability, factors that have been consistently defended by the Supreme Court of Canada.
So, the most damning element of Bill C-51 is its redundancy, not its supposed suppression of people’s freedoms.
Furthermore, I think it is important that we as Canadians really think about what freedom of expression means to us.
After the heinous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, people started to adopt the attitude that the right to unlimited free speech was the end all or be all for liberal democracy. The attack was a terrible and violent crime, but adopting an outlook that says freedom of speech trumps everything else is very problematic.
This kind of sentiment has often been used by people bent on promoting violence and prejudice. It is often taken to mean “I have the right to say whatever I want,” without expecting any consequences.
For example, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are real problems on university campuses. People who project this kind of hateful rhetoric, like the violent and misogynist Facebook conversationalists at the U of O and Dalhousie, are not fighting to maintain some sense of liberal democracy. They are only making individuals feel unsafe.
The Canadian government is reinforcing the idea that we should limit the freedom of expression in order to deter more people from being victimized and harassed. And that’s worth the sacrifice.
Fear and paranoia is not the way to go
Canadians are lucky enough to live in a country where we get to complain about anything we want. Even our freedom to criticize the government is a right that people in many other countries still haven’t acquired.
Yet this new anti-terrorism bill wants to put a chill on our freedom of expression by telling us what we can and cannot say.
Since freedom of speech is one of the core principles of democracy, the government has no right to infringe on it simply because it is afraid that a few radicalized “lone wolves” might cause us harm.
There is nothing more important in democracy than maintaining healthy discussions and alternative opinions. This is what makes a society thrive. Of course, no freedom is absolute, and acts of defamation or openly calling on citizens to commit terrorist acts is understandably against the law. But instituting a ban on broadly defined kinds of speech will only succeed in breeding fear, confusion, and paranoia.
This bill might have made sense if it was specifically designed to help identify radicalized individuals like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau or Martin Couture-Rouleau, who perpetrated two different terrorist attacks in October. But the language of this bill is so vague and open to interpretation that “promoting terrorism” could be defined as anything that fits the government’s agenda.
Because of this bill’s loose language, it could lead to situations of extreme paranoia and stupidity, as seen in France on Jan. 29 when an eight-year-old boy was brought to a police station for questioning because he said he supported terrorists.
Scaling back on our freedom of speech won’t help CSIS catch real criminals. It will only make us afraid of our fellow Canadians, or afraid of who might be monitoring our online presence.
There’s also the possibility that this bill will only hamper conversations surrounding crucial issues like radicalization. According to Lorne Dawson, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo, “When people don’t feel free to talk about the political, religious, and ideological elements of extremism, Canadian society won’t be able to address the underlying forces that drive people toward radicalization.”
Yet government hardliners don’t care about the flaws in this new legislation. They’re all too happy to take credit for “protecting” us in an election year, even if it means infringing on our rights to dissent and speak our minds.