A Canadian Court has ruled that identifying information on eight individual anonymous posters must be made available in a case regarding hate speech, with the court indicating that individuals posting on the Internet do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The site in question is Free Dominion, a very conservative and heavily visited discussion board. This is a fairly complex case going back to at least summer 2007. The material in question is racist commentary (but maybe also misogynist and anti-gay commentary). Canadian law defines hate speech and declares it illegal. Since much of the commentary was produced under anonymous pseudonyms (which is typical for the cowardly purveyors of such toxic rhetoric), the question rises: Which is more protected, the objects of hate, or the privacy of the haters? Apparently, Canadian law and precedence is fairly undecided on this issue, and there has been some movement back and forth over recent years.

There is some analysis of the decision here. The text of the court decision is here (pdf).

Comments

  1. #1 Wayne Conrad
    March 26, 2009

    “Hate speech” laws–and any laws that care what you are thinking–are pretty bad stuff. The only distinction I am aware of that the tradition of law makes for what you are thinking when you commit a crime is that between premeditated murder and not. There may be other distinctions that I’m not aware of, but I don’t want to add more. If it’s bad to hurt someone, it’s not worse because you were thinking a particular thought when you did the crime, or better because you were thinking nice thoughts.

    Freedom of thought is precious, even if the thought seems vile to any sensible person. It must be only a person’s actions that count.

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    March 26, 2009

    Wayne, there’s a great deal of American law that accounts for people’s thoughts and intents. In addition to the gradations of murder and manslaughter, there are punitive civil penalties based on things like “willful” negligence. There’s the distinction of making a “terroristic” threat. In pretty much every case, intentions have to be proven based on behavior, though.

    Now, if you want to argue against hate speech laws on the basis of whether restricting speech is a good thing, that’s a different argument.

  3. #3 Wayne Conrad
    March 26, 2009

    Stephanie, You’re quite right. Thank you.

    I think that crimes with conviction needing needing proof of intent end up being scarecrows, because it is (rightfully) difficult to prove intent. I think they are passed as “feel good” measures, to show that we disapprove of such things, and not because they will actually put a meaningful number of ill-doers in jail. I do not think the law is an appropriate place for symbols with limited utility, so these laws should go.

    That there are many laws that account for people’s thoughts, does not mean we ought to have more. I think we ought to have less. I am not sure what it means that intentions have to be proved based on behavior. Does that mean that my thought have to be proved based upon me writing down what I was thinking? That does not make me feel any better that we have made a thought into a crime (or an increased punishment for an existing crime, which isn’t much of a distinction)–it is still a thought crime, even if it is my behavior that revealed what it was I was thinking. Or did you mean something else? I’m not a lawyer, nor that familiar with the law. I just know that any man ought to be free to think any thought.

    When it comes to free speech, I want to be an absolutist, but my thoughts are conflicted. Bill Joy’s writing and speaking has a lot to do with my concern–is there any moral position for a free speech absolutist in a future where anyone, with the right knowledge, may cook up a genetically engineered virus in the kitchen?

  4. #4 Tony Sidaway
    March 26, 2009

    The notion that internet transactions are anonymous is widespread but very, very mistaken. It’s possible, but not easy, to make pseudo-anonymous contributions to the internet, but truly anonymous internet communication is rare.

  5. #5 AK
    March 26, 2009

    Back in the ’60’s, when I was in school, I was taught that the limit to free speech was “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. Later, after reading Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought“, especially chapter 7 (“The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television“), I’ve come to a more nuanced understanding.

    I’d have to include “hate speech” as one of those nuances. Speech (or writing) that plays on people’s hatred or fear to convince them that there’s a “fire in the theater” requiring action that would be unacceptable without the imagined emergency could well be defined, like swear words, as more than simple speech. Like use of profanity, such “hate speech” is more than an expression of an opinion, it almost certainly reaches into parts of our brain that simple opinions do not, and therefore may reasonably be regulated differently than simple speech. (Of course, is would be very nice to see some research into this issue.)

    The Web brings up another issue. Prior to the Internet, such hate speech was either inflicted on unwilling audiences, or they were part of a gathering that could be considered a conspiracy. But with the Internet, people who are vulnerable to such “hate speech” can find and become attracted (even addicted) without having to travel to a gathering or associate with a bunch of other hateful people. This makes the situation completely new, and requires a reaction tailored to the situation, not based on older forms of rabble rousing.

  6. #6 Graculus
    March 26, 2009

    “Hate speech” laws–and any laws that care what you are thinking..

    Bullshit.

    There is no law in Canada against thinking hate, or speaking hate in private. The law very narrowly defines what constitutes criminal “hate speech” to advocating violence against a group in *public* in a certain manner.

    Basicaly it extends the same laws that protect individuals to groups.. which are also made up of individuals. No big stretch, and no big deal.

    The text of the law itself is readily available online, and not to be confused with HRC activities, which are *civil* lawsuits.

  7. #7 Connie Fournier
    March 26, 2009

    Just one small correction. The comments in question had nothing to do with hate speech.

    This is a defamation suit. Richard Warman is upset because some Free Dominion members posted comments about some of the things that he did as an investigator with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and their opinions of said activities.

    Nobody on Free Dominion is interested in posting hate messages…it is not that kind of site, but it should be fair game to post about things that a government employee does to Canadian citizens.

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