The Current

Mosque shooter's search history shouldn't be a cause for online censorship: expert

Alexandre Bissonnette was reading extreme content online in the weeks prior to the attack on the Quebec mosque, but opinion is divided over whether Canada should crack down harder on hate speech online.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty last month to six counts of first degree murder for the shooting at a mosque in Quebec on Jan. 29, 2017. (Sûreté du Québec/Canadian Press )

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Alexandre Bissonnette had scoured Twitter for right-wing commentators, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists in the weeks before he killed six men inside a Quebec City mosque.

The revelation at his sentencing hearing this week has raised questions about whether Canada is tough enough on online hate speech.

But Bissonnette's search history is not a good basis for increasing censorship, according to Cara Zwibel, a director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). In fact, she added, such restrictions could inadvertently strengthen extreme rhetoric.

"I like my racists where I can see them," said Zwibel, who is the director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at CCLA.

"I'd prefer to know that these are the views that someone espouses rather than than trying to to silence those views." 

There's also a risk of inadvertently amplifying those voices, she said.

"We get prosecutions of individuals who then use the prosecution as a platform. They make themselves martyrs for the cause of free speech."

Protecting a person's right to free speech can lead to a very narrow definition of what constitutes hate speech, said Cara Zwibel. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Commentary 'inciting to violence' 

What Bissonnette was searching and consuming fits the standard tropes of Islamophobia online, said Barbara Perry, a global hate crime expert and professor in the department of social science and humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

He would have been reading about "the risk that is posed by increasing immigration, in terms of impact on social services and impacts on employment opportunities," she said. He would also have been exposed to rhetoric that suggests a physical risk, she added, by drawing links between immigration and terrorism.

"You certainly see commentary there that it is inciting to violence, you know: 'Let's get them,'" she said of extreme far-right websites.

"Some of these groups are now armed as well, which suggests the willingness to engage in violence; they frame as defensive violence... protecting their culture, protecting their community."

Alexandre Bissonnette told Sgt. Steve Girard he was trying save people when he shot and killed 6 people, and injured others, in a Quebec City mosque. 0:45

Hate speech not clearly defined 

Canada doesn't have a clear definition of hate speech, according to Perry.

We rely on sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code, she said, which "refer to propaganda and narratives that incite hatred, that incite violence."

Pursuing these offences requires a high standard of proof, and must be vetted by the attorney general before the Crown can proceed with charges.

Previously, people could make a complaint of hate speech to the Canadian Human Rights Commission under Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, but that provision was repealed through a private member's bill in 2013.

Perry would like to see it reinstated, as a way to protect communities "from offensive and hateful and hurtful speech."

Sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code 'refer to propaganda and narratives that incite hatred, that incite violence,' aid Barbara Perry. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Current contacted the office of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould about Section 13, and whether the Liberal government would consider resurrecting it.

"While we continue to review all areas of the criminal justice system, hate speech is comprehensively sanctioned by Canada's criminal law framework," Wilson-Raybould's office said in a statement. 

"Reintroducing Section 13 of the Canada Human Rights Act would require careful examination before making any legislative changes."

Zwibel doesn't think Section 13 should be brought back.

"It doesn't sit well with what human rights tribunals generally do," she said.

The conflict between protecting someone from hate speech and the need to protect a person's freedom of expression can lead to a very narrow definition of what constitutes hate speech, she said.

"You end up having a situation where you have groups coming to a tribunal who have been maligned and are the subject of very damaging statements," she said, "and the tribunal says: 'Well, it's bad, but it's not bad enough."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Samira Mohyeddin.