Justice Committee recommends prosecuting “online hate” under human rights law

For background on section 13 and the justice committee’s online hate study, read this article of mine from earlier in June. To get a sense of how farcical the committee’s antics got during its proceedings, you may wish to read this piece.

After hearing from nearly five dozen witnesses over two months of meetings, the Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has tabled its report in the House of Commons.

The report from the Liberal-dominated committee lays out nine recommendations for Members of Parliament to adopt. Most notable is the implementation of a “civil remedy” to combat online hate, which the report acknowledges must first be defined in law.

The Conservatives have already taken aim at the report, charging its recommendations call for an “unacceptable violation” of free speech.

Recommendation 7 of the report:

That the Government of Canada develop a working group comprised of relevant stakeholders to establish a civil remedy for those who assert that their human rights have been violated under the Canadian Human Rights Act, irrespective of whether that violation happens online, in person, or in traditional print format. This remedy could take the form of reinstating the former section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, or implementing a provision analogous to the previous section 13 within the Canadian Human Rights Act, which accounts for the prevalence of hatred on social media.

Only four of the dozens of witnesses who testified before the committee made preserving and protecting free speech a priority in their remarks, with a majority advocating a restoration of section 13, or a super-charged version of it that holds social media companies culpable for content posted online, as well as the people posting it.

Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, repealed during Stephen Harper’s government, allowed for the Canadian human rights commission and tribunal to prosecute online postings, though defendants did not have the same protections or rights afforded to them as those defending themselves in the criminal justice system.

The high standard Canadian criminal law sets for hate speech has caused activists on the left to seek a prosecutorial tool with a lower threshold, prompting the desire for the “civil remedy” sought by the committee’s report.

The report also calls on the government to “establish requirements for online platforms
and Internet service providers with regards to how they monitor and address
incidents of hate speech, and the need to remove all posts that would
constitute online hatred in a timely manner.”

This recommendation is particularly timely, given Canada’s democratic institutions minister, Karina Gould, said last week that the government was not averse to shutting down social media companies who don’t comply with government’s expectations when it comes to political content during the election.

The Conservative members of the committee pushed back against the report, with Conservative MP Michael Barrett arguing these recommendations do “not strike an appropriate balance” between dealing with extremism and protecting free speech.

“Measures like the restoration of section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act are an unacceptable violation of the freedom of speech rights of Canadians,” Barrett said.

Report embedded below:

Taking Action to End Online Hate by Andrew Lawton on Scribd

Michael Cooper’s words removed from justice committee’s transcript and audio record

The edited transcript of Michael Cooper's comments during a meeting of the parliamentary justice and human rights committee.

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. I know, of course, that the past is falsified, but it would never be possible for me to prove it, even when I did the falsification myself. After the thing is done, no evidence ever remains. The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories. Just in that one instance, in my whole life, I did possess actual concrete evidence after the event—years after it.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

If there was ever a time when silence was deafening, it’s now. If you listen to the audio recording of a justice committee meeting last week and it stops abruptly, there isn’t a problem with your internet connection. That silence is the product of a successful effort by Liberal politicians to literally censor the words of a colleague.

The censored words are those of Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who was ejected from the justice committee by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Cooper read an excerpt from the Christchurch killer’s manifesto to challenge a committee witness’ assertion that “conservative commentators” inspire mass violence.

But the attacks on Cooper, and the truth he spoke, went beyond political. As I wrote about last week, members of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights voted unanimously (with the Conservative members abstaining) to remove Cooper’s comments from the official record.

Not only were they removed from the transcript, pictured above. Even the raw audio feed of the testimony was retroactively edited, with silence replacing the offending words.

First, the stream goes dead when Cooper mentions Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch killer, by name. It goes dead again as Cooper reads the section of the manifesto disproving the slanderous assertion made by witness Faisal Khan Suri.

I was in the committee room when the motion to censor and censure Cooper was passed, but it was still chilling to hear–or not hear, rather–the new “record” of that May 28 meeting.

You can listen to the updated version of history for yourself here, though I’ve embedded the relevant excerpt below.

As noted in the above Orwell quote, in the absence of an official record we’re left only with memories, fallible and unprovable as they are. Even when reporting on Cooper’s comments, no Canadian media outlet included them in full. At this point, no publicly accessible transcript of the exchange exists, with the exception of my own, below.

I manually transcribed this after the motion to censor Cooper was passed. Regretfully I didn’t have the forethought to download the audio myself.

Thank you, Mr. Chair. First of all, Mr. Suri, I take great umbrage with your defamatory comments to try to link conservatism with violent and extremist attacks. They have no foundation. They are defamatory. And they diminish your credibility as a witness.

Let me, Mr. Chair, read into the record the statement of Brenton Tarrant, who is responsible for the Christchurch massacre. He left a 74-page manifesto in which he stated “conservatism is corporatism in disguise. I want no part of it,” and, “The nation with the closest political and social values to my own is the People’s Republic of China.”

I certainly wouldn’t attempt to link Bernie Sanders to the individual who shot up Republican members of Congress and nearly fatally killed Congressman (Steve) Scalise. So you should be ashamed.

Michael Cooper, Conservative Member of Parliament, St. Albert–Edmonton, at a meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, May 28, 2019.

The fight for free speech is never over

It was a big victory against state censorship when section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed in 2013.

The repeal, accomplished through a private member’s bill by Conservative member of parliament Brian Storseth, eliminated the CHRA provision allowing for prosecution of online “hate” speech.

Yet not even a decade has passed and a parliamentary committee is weighing whether to bring back section 13 or an amended version of it.

The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has heard from nearly five dozen witnesses since April as part of its study of “online hate.”

“The Canadian Human Rights Act does not include any mention of telecommunications and the internet since section 13 of the Act was repealed in 2013,” the scope of the body’s study says. “The Committee is particularly interested in how potential amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Criminal Code, or any other Act, could help stem the propagation of hateful acts and the enticement of hate such as racism, sexism, antisemitism, islamophobia, or homophobia, through online platforms.”

Shamefully, yet unsurprisingly, most of the witnesses testifying–including the chief commissioners of the Saskatchewan and Canadian human rights commissions–have advocated a restoration of section 13.

While the Liberal government may wish to pretend there’s a gap in the law regarding the internet, there isn’t. Anything that’s illegal in Canada–as criminal hate speech is–is prohibited on the internet.

I suspect what censors are actually pining for is the murky and reprehensibly broad interpretation “hate” that the Canadian Human Rights Commission embraced during the lifespan of section 13.

This week the committee will hear from Mark Steyn, Lindsay Shepherd and John Robson. Their voices will be important after weeks of dozens of witnesses wanting government to not only clamp down on online hate speech, but also social media companies that allow it.

(Only a couple of witnesses to date have made preserving free speech a priority in their recommendations.)

There’s nothing wrong with opposing offensive and hateful speech. Wanting government to do so with the force of the law is a different story. Especially when the umpteen hours spent investigating “online hate” have not yielded a definition of it.

Even so, that Canadian Human Rights Commission’s chief commissioner testified that it poses a “clear and present danger.”

The missing definition is critical here, especially if the Left gets its way and social media postings do become subject to government regulation, as a supercharged section 13 would allow.

Given how readily the Left accuses anyone it disagrees with of “hateful” rhetoric with labels like “racist” and “Islamophobe” and the like, I’m not optimistic a Liberal definition of hate speech will hew to Canadian criminal law’s high threshold.

That this committee’s study exists in the first place is evidence of victory’s impermanence. I joined the chorus of celebration when section 13 was repealed in 2013.

The climate of free speech has changed a lot in these last six years, however. Conservative commentators had allies in liberal journalists on the question of censorship and free speech back then. Columnists and even some politicians on the Left understood that a liberal democracy must uphold free speech.

Now, defending free speech is somehow synonymous with defending bigotry to the Left, which is more focused on pinpointing where free speech’s limits are than with preserving the overall right.

Groups like PEN, Amnesty and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression care far more about identity politics than upholding freedom of expression.

Amnesty Canada, for example, testified in support of online hate speech regulation, arguing the “right to free expression” carries “special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to restrictions.”

Government bureaucracies don’t even pretend to care about freedom of speech. Case in point was Saskatchewan human rights commissioner David Arnot’s testimony before the justice committee last week.

Arnot said human rights commissions are the best way to curb hate, rather than criminal law, saying criticism of human rights commissions justifying censorship was merely “anecdotal.”

Except it wasn’t.

Steyn had to defend his right to publish a column about Islam before British Columbia’s human rights tribunal. The complaint against Maclean’s that sparked that trial was also put to the human rights bodies of Canada and Ontario, which declined to pursue only for lack of jurisdiction, not lack of support.

But Arnot, who I suspect is representative of the broader government-appointed human rights industry in Canada, rejects the premise that free speech is even a right in Canada, let alone one to be protected.

“Canada has no democratic tradition of unbridled free speech,” he said. “Freedom of speech in Canada has always been freedom governed by limits recognized in law.”

He argued there are “numerous limits to free expression that are justifiable in a free and democratic society.”

This is true when talking about threats, advocacy of genocide, and so on. Though Arnot said any protection against the “greater harm that flows from unfettered speech” is justified.

Anyone thinking the Conservatives will be reliable allies in this fight need only look at Andrew Scheer’s treatment of one of his own party’s members of parliament, Michael Cooper.

Until last weekend, Cooper was the vice-chair of the justice committee. Now he’s been booted by Scheer for the crime of being “insensitive” after pushing back against a witness’ erroneous claim that “conservative commentators” influence anti-Muslim attackers.

Cooper read from the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto to illustrate how the murderer actually disavowed conservatism. After the media falsely crafted a narrative of a Conservative MP beating up on a Muslim, Scheer capitulated, throwing his own caucus member under the bus for his “insensitive and unacceptable” comments, “especially when directed at a Muslim witness.”

This is one of the reasons I’m less optimistic about this renewed fight for free speech. A decade ago, Conservatives and even some Liberals were unified in their support for free speech. Now, Liberals and some Conservatives are united in the other direction.

Victory should never be taken for granted. The fight is the same as it was a decade ago, though the opposition is much larger.

Government-approved journalism coming to Canada

Canada will be co-hosting a press freedom summit in July with the United Kingdom, which I need your help to cover.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition for Canada to be lecturing the world on the importance of a free press when, this week, Canadians learned the federal will be putting together an A-list of approved media outlets to serve as the basis for who gets to benefit from a fund of tax money meant to bolster news subscriptions.

The problem for Canadians is that this creates an economic imbalance between government-funded outlets, and those not on the dole. It also raises integrity questions about the quality of content emanating from outlets wishing to stay in the government’s good books–literally.

I unpack this in my latest video for True North.

Stripe suspends Tommy Robinson’s campaign fundraising account – one week before election

Update: Stripe has temporarily reinstated Tommy Robinson’s account, pending a two-week review.

The full letter from Tommy Robinson’s lawyer to Stripe is at the bottom of this post.

When Tommy Robinson left the Old Bailey on Tuesday, he wanted to focus on his campaign for the European Parliament. A decision two days later from a Silicon Valley tech giant may make that more difficult.

A New York law firm representing Robinson says two of the British candidate’s accounts with Stripe – an online payment processing company – were suspended, including one used exclusively by the VoteTommy election campaign.

“Stripe informed Tommy this week that two accounts connected with him…were terminated on the ground that his business violated the Stripe Services Agreement,” a letter from Ronald Coleman to Stripe’s general counsel says. “Tommy’s campaign and fundraising are entirely lawful under both UK and EU law. Tommy has complied with all legal requirements for registering as an official candidate and he will be on the ballet in the EU Parliament election on May 23rd.”

Stripe has issued no public statement about the suspension, though I’ve reached out to the company’s media relations office and will update this when I hear back.

Coleman goes on his letter to note that Stripe has not denied its services to any other candidate in the election, and that the suspension “is seriously hindering Tommy’s ability to participate in the democratic process.”

My longstanding belief is that companies should have the right to do business with whomever they’d like, and should not be compelled otherwise. This is not as cut-and-dried where elections are concerned.

Canadian election law, for example, requires that publishers allow all candidates the opportunity to purchase advertising if it will allow some to do so. A company terminating a relationship with one week until the election disadvantages Robinson’s campaign at what is often the most critical point for fundraising.

Imagine if, say, a candidate’s web host decided in the days before an election that it would take their website offline, and that website was the vehicle through which the campaign would email people about how and where to vote.

I won’t pretend to know the intricacies of European election law, but if Stripe had an issue with being the payment processor of Robinson’s campaign, it has had ample opportunities to make a decision to suspend prior to this point.

Letter from Tommy Robinson&… by on Scribd