Editors' Forum Erin Loney

Motion M-103: Free Speech vs. Hate Speech?

Motion M-103 has been passed by the House of Commons, but still faces significant opposition from those who believe the motion will restrict free speech. Where and how do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech? Is there a difference between censorship and tact?


Farah Bogani – Program Editor, NATO’s Arc of Crisis

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines ‘the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ However, this makes the right double-edged and almost paradoxical in that as much as it provides freedom from censorship, it also provides a platform for those whose ideas promote intolerance and go against basic tenets of human rights.


However, to what extent can, or should, free speech be permitted if it incites violence against others? The M-103 motion has had mixed reactions, mainly due to the perception that one of its features prevents criticism of Islam, thereby undermining the right to free speech. Its intention is to protect those who would be victimized by Islamophobic hate speech (and who would be subject to all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination). It does not intend to prevent a respectful, critical look at religion. Considering how recent events, such as the mosque shooting in Quebec by a radicalized far-right nationalist, anti-Islam protests at mosques, and vandalism of mosques, have coincided with the increasingly visible rise of xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, M-103 should thus be seen as an attempt to protect people from language which could influence discriminatory action.


Free speech is a fundamental right, but to use that right as a way to promote intolerance and to incite harmful, violent action against others is problematic and dangerous for groups targeted by that kind of language.


Phil Rafalko – Program Editor, International Business and Economics

In a word: yes, there is a difference between censorship and tact. Whereas the former is an expression or imposition of power, the latter is a process that is genuinely self-motivated. It is important to qualify that one can engage in self-censorship. This may occur as a result of governmentality, a form of conditioning which causes an individual to rationalize existing power dynamics, and makes them part of the state’s population management.


Censorship is about who has the authority to speak. Tact is the exercise of restraint out of respect for other people with which they disagree (or at least out of a desire not to get into pointless arguments). It is a decision made free from fear of imposed authority. This difference highlights the historical context in which free speech arose: the ability to express one’s political inclinations free from persecution. Tact is simply the choice not to say anything where the right to free speech exists.


Both hate speech and crackdowns against it, if enacted with social authority and condoned by the state, defeat the purpose of the right to free speech by enabling the persecution of others. However, as the condition which “Islamophobia” tries to describe has led to real instances of persecution and violence, while crackdowns on it have so far only elicited symbolic condemnations such as M-103 and alt-right Twitter bans (but not legal charges or political violence), it makes sense that a government committed to upholding civil rights will not lend any credence to hate speech.


Alexis Amini – Program Editor, Canadian Armed Forces

There is a very thin line between free speech and hate speech. On one hand, hate speech can be spread under the cover of free speech. On the other hand, invoking hate speech is a way to curb other people’s opinions where we might disagree. In the context of re-merging identity politics and culture wars, with the clash between nationalism versus internationalism being the most visible sign, it is easy to feel offended by one’s statements on how society should be organized. Tolerance is a place of discomfort and disagreement, it is not easy to see our worldview being challenged by somebody else and it is even more difficult to accept that there are other perspectives, that our view is one amongst many. As Winston Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.


Instead of withdrawing from persons with different worldviews and staying only with people holding opinions similar to ours, we need to reach out to the other side. This is the essence of democracy no matter how difficult and messy it may be. People should welcome the opportunity to debate, to sharpen their arguments in contact with opponents, so that they can perfect those arguments in the long run. Instead of saying this worldview is morally wrong by using terms like “racist” or “bigot”, we need to start a conversation to convince them why it is wrong. In a democratic environment, no political opinion is above reproach that it can be exempted of reasoning. If you truly believe in your worldview, you will seize every opportunity to defend it and improve upon it.


Alex Sawicki – Program Editor, Procurement

We, as Canadians, have never had “freedom of speech” like that enjoyed by our neighbours to the south. Hate speech is a component of free speech, and one cannot have truly free speech whilst simultaneously restricting hate speech. They move in tandem and are inalienable. What we have, as per the Charter, is “freedom of expression,” which is much more nuanced and therefore malleable.


If words are so powerful, then the wording of Motion M-103 worries me. Why single out Islamophobia, an amorphous and opaque term, and place it at the fore of the statement? Would it not suffice to simply condemn all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination? And if, as some claim, Muslims are a particularly vulnerable group facing discrimination at this particular time, what of the other vulnerable groups? Last time I checked, hate crimes against Jews outnumbered those against Muslims by 3:1, but I digress.


An oft-misattributed quote comes to mind: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” I am criticizing this Motion, and the implied “special treatment” it confers; we shall see if I am afforded the same level of protection from hate speech.


Marietta Armanyous – Program Editor, Emerging Security

M-103 is making waves throughout the country; what is the big deal? It is being portrayed as a motion that inhibits free speech. While the media seems to be primarily focusing on the Islamophobia aspect, the motion actually states that it aims to eliminate “systemic racism and religious discrimination” as a whole. Yes, it does specifically mention Islamophobia, but this is essentially an example of the hate speech to which the motion is referring. The thought is that if hate speech can propel certain people to target a group and act violently against them, then if that form of speech is removed from public society, the violent acts would stop, too—or at least be reduced. This is a large task to tackle, and the motion is trying to address the issue at hand, but whether its goal will be achieved remains to be seen.


Project Manager: Erin Loney – Program Editor, Expanding Community

How do the courts distinguish between free speech and hate crime? Usually, it comes down to physical harm or very specific threats. Hate speech itself is generally protected by freedom of expression, but the issue lies in that hate speech tends to precede hate expression, which may involve explicitly illegal and violent acts.


M-103 is not a bill, and will not alter any laws surrounding free speech. It is a mostly symbolic motion that asks the government to recognize the “increasing public climate of hate and fear” and “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”, without a mechanism to hold the government accountable for any actions based on M-103. The only recommendation within the motion is that a committee be created to study how to discourage religious discrimination in Canada.


M-103 is a good example of the difference between censorship and tact. Its intention is not to censor critics of Islam, but to encourage tact and an understanding of the origins of Islamophobia and religious discrimination. Free speech protects the espousal of hateful ideologies, and M-103 would not limit anyone’s ability to publicly discuss the negative aspects of religions, including Islam. “Good faith interpretations of religious doctrine, discussions of issues of public interest, and literary devices like sarcasm and irony” are all protected from prosecution as hate speech. However, we should not let protected freedom of speech undermine the freedom to safely practice one’s religion of choice, and that is what M-103 aims to shed light on. Critics argue that the motion singles out Islam for unfair and advantageous treatment, but adding all religions to the motion would ultimately ruin its purpose, which is to support and safeguard a vulnerable minority.

Photo: “No Islamophobia” (2015), by J. MacPherson via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Erin Loney
Erin is a contributor and former Program Editor for Expanding Community at NATO Association of Canada. She recently graduated with an Honours BSocSc in International Development and Globalization, with a minor in Political Science from the University of Ottawa. Key areas of study included international trade and development, Canadian foreign policy, economics of globalization, and research methods. Along with these topics, Erin’s personal areas of interest include environmental policy, public diplomacy, and human rights. In addition to her work at NAOC, Erin writes, edits, and contributes to social media management for an Ottawa tech start-up. She plans to pursue further studies and a career in International Affairs and Development. Erin has traveled extensively and is passionate about studying other cultures and areas of the world. She hopes to live abroad and work with an international or multilateral organization in the future. Erin can be reached at eriniloney@gmail.com.