Thursday, January 10, 2008

Free Speech, Mark Steyn and U.S. Anti-Online "Annoyance" Law

A January 15, 2006 UPI article discusses a newly-enacted American law that reportedly goes much farther in controlling "offending" online speech than does any human rights statute in Canada.

This federal U.S. legislation apparently prohibits Internet use that is merely intended to be "annoying:"

Last Thursday President Bush signed into law the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005. Included in the law is a clause that outlaws anonymously using the Internet "with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass."

"The law is different from the final versions of the bill in the House and Senate," Opsahl said. "It was a bill addressing a lot of other things, and this part was slipped in."

The chief problem with the law, Opsahl said, was the word 'annoy.' "The word covers a much wider range of speech than threats," Opsahl said. "It goes beyond the cyber-stalking that proponents were worried about."

...First Amendment rights are precisely the reason the law may not stand up, Opsahl said.

"The courts historically have been very protective of the right to speak anonymously," he said. Curtis concurred. "The first time it gets taken out for a spin, it will get shut down legally," he said. Opsahl said that even if the law is not enforced, it may have a chilling effect on speech.

These laws, of course, are extremely well-intentioned. For an example of how online abuse laws may legitimately be applied to halt internet harassment, even in the case of a woman whose public vilification might be seen as justified, by some, see this story regarding ongoing web harassment of a Missouri woman involved in an internet hoax that led to a tragic teen suicide.

As the UPI article notes, however, the federal law could be open to considerably broader interpretation. Concern is stated, in fact, that the law could potentially have a chilling effect on speech.

The opponents of the U.S. legislation utilize arguments quite similar to those now being raised regarding Canadian human rights law.

Canada has been repeatedly assailed in recent weeks by U.S. commentators as lacking adequate protection for freedom of expression as compared to America. These comments have typically emerged in response to pending human rights complaints brought by members of the Canadian Islamic Congress against conservative writer and commentator Mark Steyn and Macleans magazine.

I will restate my genuine belief that each of our nations has much to proud of in the constitutional protections that are afforded to freedom of expression.

Each nation guards free speech jealously, but each also places reasonable limits at the outer fringes of communication, as defined in each country.

When challenges are launched that purport to either extend or limit the envelope of our respective Constitutional protections for free expression, our Courts must ultimately be the arbiters of where lines are to be drawn, and where they are not.

In each of our nations, such judicial deliberations are never taken lightly. Our Courts are worthy of great respect, whether we agree with their decisions or not, for the intelligence, deference to legal precedent and vigourous analysis applied.

The recent, uncritical derision of Canada and our human rights legislation places very little faith in the integrity of Canada's judiciary, and is the refuge of the uninformed and the intellectually lazy.

This concerted protest against human rights commisions is largely a Canadianized version of the US neocon cry against "activist judges."

It should be seen for what it is - a talking point by those who defend Mark Steyn instead of defending Canada and tolerance.

The complaints against Steyn way well be dubious as a matter of law, but let us not confuse who the "good guys" are here.

On a related note, if you're in the mood for a fascinating and fun read, check out the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2007 ruling in Morse v. Frederick, the so-called "Bong Hits for Jesus" case, which is one of the Court's more recent rulings on how and where at least one line is to be drawn in the vigourous debate as to permissible speech in America.

The cross-talk among the Justices is at least as interesting as the outcome of the appeal.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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LeGioN said...

Mr Wise, are you truly serious about this ? I don't see the connection between Steyn and the US neocons. They may occasionally drink from the same tap, but so do Liberals and US Dems. the fact that the man is brought before this Tribunal alone is scary. He published a book on demographics. I have never read it, but I know people who have that are muslim. I have a huge problem with any prosecution on the basis of offense. Unless he called for violence, which he didn't as I understand it, this makes a mockery of our justice system. there is nothing sacred, or beneficial in this form of a system. It is a Canadian embarrassment.

Nomennovum said...

You seem much more interested in what Americans think about Canadian rights and in comparing US practices to Canadian practices than you are in the existence of -- what appears to anybody who can read – an overaggressive Canadian commission trying to use unconstitutional “hate laws” to silence political speech. Are you employing the tried-and-true rhetorical red herring or are you just a stereotypically insecure Canadian? Neither a poorly drafted US anti-stalking internet law*, pro-illegal drug American high school banners, nor US healthcare have any bearing on whether any human rights commission in Canada should be trying to stifle free speech of other Canadians.

Is it only I who sees the irony of a Canadian human rights commission considering trampling on the human rights of a Canadian, or do you see the Canadian right not to be offended as trumping the “American” right to free speech?

Nevertheless, congratulations on your “vastly superior” universal healthcare system. Jury’s still out on your Constitution, though.

* How this law goes further than “any human rights statute in Canadian” you leave unexplained. Perhaps that’s for the best, though.

Anonymous said...

"This concerted protest against human rights commisions is largely a Canadianized version of the US neocon cry against "activist judges.""

Er, no. It is a cry against organs of the state - unfettered by the rules of evidence, the presumption of innocence or, in their own minds at least, the provisions of the Charter - running a quasi judicial process designed to limit free speech.

"Activist judges" in Canada and the US are - it may surprise you to know - governed by all this plus, as an added bonus, stare decisis .

The good guys in this matter are people who believe that if you are going to curtail a constitutionally enshrined right - such as freedom of expression - the place to do it is in Court rather than before an administrative tribunal. And, if you are going to invent a new right - call it the right of equal space rebuttal - a constitutional amendment is required.

Happily, the good guys have a few SCC decisions going their way. Watching Mcleans and Steyn eviscerate these legally semi-trained crybabies is going to be fun.

Anonymous said...
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Nomennovum said...
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LeGioN said...

my friend that read the book did say he felt uncomfortable with some of the points made. He is a university student and no fool. there is no call for violence, otherwise my buddy wouldn't stick up for him. I think if an average canadian muslim can read it without seeing a call for violence then it doesn't violate any laws.

@wiselaw said...

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Anonymous said...

Mr. Wise, with all due respect, you are completely out of touch with a large and growing segment of the Canadian citizenry. Linking the uproar to the American press does a disservice to Canadians and the Canadian press who are leading the charge against attempts to stifle freedom of expression in Canada. Believe it or not, not all Canadians worship at the feet of so-called human rights, the UN, the "all cultures are equal" crowd, and well, you get the picture.

Please do give credit where credit is due. We are proud Canadians too. We haven't fought and died for freedom in order to have it die by a thousand cuts at the hands of human rights commissions and tyrannical minorities.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Wise,
What a pity it is that Canada has allowed itself to descend into the same hole we in Britain have fallen into during the last decade or two. Essentially liberal attitudes have permitted the politically mischevious to manipulate the various institutions of academia, media and most quasi judicial institutions, to create facist, politically correct censorship. You in Canada have my deepest sympathy as you probably view its progress as mildly amusing in its manifestations without realising its true nature and effect.Believe me it is far more vicious than you can imagine.
Best Regards

Anonymous said...

OK Mr Wise, so you tell us, who ARE the "good guys" here? Apparently it is not the champions of freedom, so who is it then? The professional victims? The fascist tribunals? The equivocating lawyers? Your own grand self?

A star chamber persecutes private citizens for speaking their minds and all you have to say is, in effect, "pay no attention to the inquisition behind the curtain", "nothing to see here", "move along".

With all due respect, YOU Mr Wise-Osgoode-Hall, are the reason that Canada is no longer a serious nation. You are a disgrace to your profession. You are a disgrace to your nation. You are a disgrace to freedom.

You present yourself as the Wise Lawyer, Defender of Justice, but in fact you are a defender of nothing, just a chickens**t apologist for tyrants.


See if you can grow a pair and print this. Maybe then in the future you can stand up for something more than the metastasizing right of the government to intrude.

Anonymous said...

It should be seen for what it is - a talking point by those who defend Mark Steyn instead of defending Canada and tolerance.

The defence of Mark Steyn is the defence of Canada and tolerance.

A country that cannot tolerate free political speech is a country on the way to totalitarianism.

Anonymous said...

Just more leftist drivel. They do the damage and then accuse the right of being the evil ones! Being tolerant is one thing having white Canadians treated like second class citizens in their own country is another...