"Hate Speech" In America v. The Western World
A couple of years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values. The article's tone was mocking and biting, but it said nothing that conservative magazines and blogs in the United States did not say every day without fear of legal reprisal.
Things are different here. The magazine is on trial.
Under Canadian law, there is a serious argument that the article contained hate speech and that its publisher, Maclean's magazine, the nation's leading newsweekly, should be forbidden from saying similar things, forced to publish a rebuttal and made to compensate Muslims for injuring their "dignity, feelings and self respect."
The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, which held five days of hearings on those questions in Vancouver last week, will soon rule on whether Maclean's violated a provincial hate speech law by stirring up animosity toward Muslims.
As spectators lined up for the afternoon session last week, an argument broke out.
It's hate speech!" yelled one man.
"It's free speech!" yelled another.
In the United States, that debate has been settled. Under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines can say what they like about minority groups and religions - even false, provocative or hateful things - without legal consequence.
The Maclean's article, "The Future Belongs to Islam," was an excerpt from a book by Mark Steyn called "America Alone." The title was fitting: The United States, in its treatment of hate speech, as in so many areas of the law, takes a distinctive legal path.
"In much of the developed world, one uses racial epithets at one's legal peril, one displays Nazi regalia and the other trappings of ethnic hatred at significant legal risk and one urges discrimination against religious minorities under threat of fine or imprisonment," Frederick Schauer, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a recent essay called "The Exceptional First Amendment."
"But in the United States," Schauer continued, "all such speech remains constitutionally protected."