Free-speech advocates and MPs clash over how to combat online hate

OTTAWA — The name and words of the man accused of killing 51 people in the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attacks will be struck from the records of the House of Commons justice committee, its members agreed Tuesday, in a decision that sparked an immediate row with one of the committee's latest witnesses.

The committee is studying the spread of hate online. Conservative writers and media personalities Mark Steyn, Lindsay Shepherd and John Robson were all waiting to testify Tuesday morning when Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault brought the motion to expunge the material.

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Edmonton Conservative MP Michael Cooper had read the alleged mass murderer's manifesto into the committee's record last week, angry that witness Faisal Khan Suri linked the March attacks to conservatism.

On the weekend, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer removed Cooper from the committee over his "insensitive and unacceptable" behaviour.

In a 6-0 vote Tuesday morning, with Conservatives abstaining, the committee voted to expunge that section of its record. In New Zealand, publication of the alleged murderer's manifesto is forbidden and public figures have shied away from using the accused killer's name, seeking to deny him publicity.

Cooper's removal from the committee amounts to a "defenestration," said Steyn, a conservative writer who has been criticized for his own inflammatory statements about Muslims. He said Liberal calls for Cooper to be kicked out of the Conservative caucus show we live in a world where a single mistake can lead to someone's reputation being "vaporized."

At one point, Steyn shouted over Toronto Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi, who was asking if Steyn regretted some of the things he's said publicly about Muslims and Islam.

Steyn admitted that he had made "obnoxious" statements in the past, but refused to discuss controversies that had already been dealt with by human-rights tribunals.

"That's been adjudicated and I'm in the clear, I beat the rap," Steyn said.

"I don't think you were adjudicated as to whether you were obnoxious or you were hurtful," Ehsassi countered. Steyn again conceded his statements had been hurtful.

During his testimony, Steyn argued against the potential reinstatement of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which governed online hate speech and was repealed through a Conservative MP's private member's bill in 2013. He contended that the issues of online hate should be discussed in a space where people regulate themselves, rather than one restricted by laws.

"Free speech is hate speech, and hate speech is free speech," Steyn said, calling the alternative to free speech "approved speech."

Steyn sat alongside the other witnesses, including Shepherd, who rose to prominence after she ran afoul of faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University for, as a teaching assistant, showing clips of professor Jordan Peterson's TV appearances to students in her class. A university investigation ultimately concluded that nobody had complained through any formal channel about Shepherd's teaching and that her treatment as an employee was wrong.

Ehsassi asked Shepherd whether instances of racism, sexism and other bigotry create a responsibility on the part of public figures to speak out against those beliefs.

"I don't think people have a responsibility to condemn," Shepherd said. She worried that people will be considered accomplices if they don't sufficiently speak out in every instance.

John Robson, a documentary filmmaker and National Post columnist, argued that the answer to hate speech on line is more and better speech — not censorship.

"The way we get at truth is to speak out against error, denounce it and refute it," Robson said. "The trouble with censoring hateful speech is that you drive it underground where it isn't exposed to sunlight."

NDP MP Randall Garrison accused the witnesses of being out of touch with the reality and implications of hate speech, citing his personal experience with harassment as a gay man in Canadian politics.

"When I was elected to Parliament I received death threats, multiple death threats," Garrison said. He noted the witnesses' focus on Section 13, but argued the committee was not about criminalizing speech.

"We all know the cliche, that there are limits on speech, that you can't shout fire in a crowded theatre," Garrison said. "So the problem is defining where that crowded theatre is these days."

Reacting later to the decision to change the committee's record, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called the decision "unprecedented" and hoped it never happened again, but still voiced her support for the committee vote. Conservative MP Rob Nicholson said there should be a record of what happens in parliamentary committees, "whether it's appropriate or inappropriate."

—With files from Lina Dib

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