Hate speech vs. freedom of speech in the age of social media
RCMP rightly investigating potential instances of hate speech on social media, says law professor
The social media firestorm following the shooting death of Colten Boushie, 22, has prompted questions of what constitutes hate speech in the digital age.
The racist and hateful statements in some comment sections have prompted Premier Brad Wall to speak out, writing on his Facebook page "racism has no place in Saskatchewan" last weekend. The RCMP have stated they are actively investigating all social media posts that could be considered hate speech.
- Should racist and sexist comments be banned from social media?
- Sask. councillor regrets social media post about Colten Boushie shooting death, says wife
Ken Norman is a professor at the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan. He said that for a comment to be considered hate speech, certain elements must be at play in the statement.
"There has to be some intention to engage in an extreme form of vilification or detestation, in the words of the Supreme Court," he said. "There has to be some prospect that somebody might act on this, that it has to be a call for somebody to do something."
Norman added our law does not allow people to say the most violent kinds of racist things without the law stepping up and that posts on social media can constitute hate speech as they are public statements.
"RCMP I think are rightly looking into this and should take very seriously this kind of level of hatred," he said.
Balancing with freedom of speech
Norman said hate speech has been a difficult thing to define when balancing it with freedom of speech.
"I think there's a balance that necessarily has to be put in place. After all – free speech is an important and vital democratic value. So people have to be given some leeway to say hurtful things," he said.
He said our law draws an important line stating you cannot dehumanize an identifiable group of people with comments that promote violence.
Norman said social media postings of hate speech have not really been tested by the courts yet, and there have not been many convictions in Canada under the hate-crime provision. He added that the premier rightly indicated that these laws are on the books for a reason and they should be enforced.
"This is an issue for all of us to consider with regard to what the limits of speech need to be if we're to live together as neighbours," Norman said.
With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition