On December 12, Lord Dear introduced a motion to reform section 5 from the Public Order Act 1986 in the British House of Lords. Section 5 says that a person is guilty of an offence in Britain if he
"uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."
Essentially, it makes it illegal to insult anyone.
Reform Section 5, a campaign dedicated to removing the illegality of "insulting words or behaviour" from the law, has gotten a lot of attention in Britain with their slogan "Feel Free to Insult Me." They launched their mission after a man was arrested for asking a police officer, "do you realize your horse is gay?" A horse. While the officer himself admitted to not being insulted, he stated that the comment could have insulted anyone in the vicinity who heard it. Makes sense, right?
A teenager was later arrested for growling and woofing at two Labrador dogs in public, a café owner was investigated for showing biblical passages on a TV screen, and an LGBT group was arrested under section 5 for protesting anti-gay persecution in the Middle East. While one would hope such a law would only be used in extraordinary circumstances, it's actually very common. Between 2001 and 2003, 51,285 people were found guilty in court of having violated section 5, including 8,489 minors ranging from 10 to 17 years of age. Can you imagine a 10-year-old boy facing a judge having to explain why he broke the law and called his teacher stupid? Kids don't know the consequences of their actions and don't always think before they speak. Should they really be held to the same standards as adults?
Getting rid of this ludicrous legislation has attracted a lot of support, most notably from actor Rowan Atkinson. In a beautifully worded speech better heard than paraphrased, he describes the damage such a restriction of freedom of speech does to a society. He rightfully states that the solution to insults is not more legislation, but more insults. It's the only way to distinguish between truly hurtful acts and mere empty words. "If we want a robust society, we need more robust dialogue and that must include the right to insult or to offend. Because, as someone once said, the freedom to be inoffensive is no freedom at all."
That got me thinking: this would never happen in Canada, right?
Well it could.
Section 1 of the Constitution Act 1982 gives Canadians the right to free speech, but with "reasonable limits." This ensures that almost anything one says can be considered unconstitutional and subject to legal prosecution. You have a right to speak your mind, but be careful of what you say.
Then there's section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. This prohibits the "communication of hate messages." Though a bill to repeal section 13 is currently passing through the Senate, Human Rights courts all over the country are littered with cases that are best characterized by an insane hypersensitivity to what other people have to say. Section 319.2 of the Criminal Code outlaws the willful promotion of hatred "against an identifiable group," and section 319.1 bans any incitements that "lead to a breach of peace."
All these terms -- reasonable limits, hate messages, breach of peace -- are subjective terms that are utilized by those who feel it is their duty to enforce political correctness and prosecute anyone who offends them. Yet we have to be careful about legislating offensiveness. Nothing anyone says in inherently offensive. It is not an objective matter. Rather, if someone is offended by anything, it is their own fault. The values they hold, the standards they live by, or the beliefs they hold dearly have been violated, but it was not necessarily the intention of the speaker and they are not necessarily communal values. What insults one person might not even be noticed by another.
Laws in a 21st century democratic nation are not meant to set a moral standard. We cannot allow the government to decide what subjective comments are acceptable and which should land you in prison. Laws are there to protect society by outlawing physical violence and crimes that leave long-term damage on the victims. An offensive word does not qualify by this standard. We might not like what we hear, but we can't censor the world based on quality and hurt feelings.
This societal need to prosecute potty mouths and anything deemed offensive has become a popular trend in Canada. Most recently this has been transcended into anti-bullying laws introduced in legislatures all over the country. Bullying, as most people can remember from high school, has always been around. Yet we are much more sensitive to it today. And while we can acknowledge that lawmakers have their hearts in the right place when they come up with these laws, we must be extremely vigilant of its effects.
Under new zero-tolerance anti-bullying laws, children could get expelled from school for saying something negative to one of their peers. Alberta's proposed Education Act will give schools the power to stalk students on Facebook for any comments that could be deemed a form of bullying, leading to suspensions and expulsion. They are instilling new laws that actively seek to find reasons to punish children instead of focusing on truly bad behaviour that leads to physical or psychological damage in a school's immediate jurisdiction. Instead, good behaviour should be enforced, encouraged, and kids should be taught how to be indifferent to verbal bullying and how to stand up to bad behaviour.
What kind of values are these new laws creating? It tells kids that any comment that one should normally brush off becomes a bullet, a hurtful statement that requires years of therapy to overcome. Kids will be so afraid to joke around with one another like normal children do that when someone does say something offensive, they'll have no social mechanism to deal with it. Instead of targeting real bullies, the new laws would put even the best of children who make occasional comportment mistakes on the defensive. If every child in school becomes responsible for every bad little word they've ever said, our schools would be empty.
Anti-bullying measures are popular now, but its true danger will be exposed the day you read Timmy with the straight A's was expelled from his elementary school for a single snide comment on the playground. Human Rights courts sound like a good idea in theory, until you hear the story of the mother who tried to ban acorns from her daughter's school because it "violated" her human rights. Or the prisoners convicted for murder and rape who sued the government because their human rights were violated -- proper barber services were not provided in their prison cells.
Perhaps even more ridiculous is the case of a restaurant in British Columbia being sued for their Albino Rhino beer whose name was deemed too offensive by a customer. People like taking laws too far, anti-bullying measures will be no different.
The lesson here is that legislation doesn't solve all our problems. In fact, policies that target freedom of speech and offensive comments are some of the most problematic because they don't differentiate between things that are truly offensive -- anti-Semitic rhetoric by neo-Nazis -- and harmless jokes that could be misunderstood, like teenagers calling a horse gay. Instead of trying to child-proof the world, we should be more focused on world-proofing our children as New York author Lenore Skenazy has cleverly stated. We should teach them how to survive in this world instead of preventing every little event that could cause a chip in their shoulder.
A bad word is only as powerful as you make it out to be. It's not by limiting freedom or letting the government decide what is acceptable behaviour that we evolve as a society. We progress by learning from our mistakes, standing up to those who want to push us down, and building confidence from the struggles we've faced. We don't hide behind shields and cower in fear.
To quote Rowan Atkinson one last time, "Underlying prejudices, injustices or resentments are not addressed by arresting people: they are addressed by the issues being aired, argued and dealt with preferably outside the legislative process. For me, the best way to increase society's resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it. As with childhood diseases, you can better resist those germs to which you have been exposed."
Britain is taking steps to restore absolute freedom of speech, so should Canada.
This article was originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify legal language.
Follow Tom Kott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TomK0tt