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Globe Editorial

Punishing cross-burning stops the fire next time Add to ...

The burning of a two-metre cross on the lawn of a bi-racial family in rural Nova Scotia last year was an act of intimidation verging on terrorism. It is important that Canadian justice recognize its viciousness, and not simply penalize it under the bland catch-all "criminal harassment." Provincial Court Judge Claudine MacDonald was right to declare it an illegal incitement of hatred, and to find 20-year-old Justin Rehberg guilty as charged.

This newspaper has argued that offensive and disgusting opinions, including deeply racist ones, should not be criminalized under anti-hate laws, because those laws may silence legitimate debate and because the best way to deal with offensive views is to trounce them in the public square. But we draw the line at expression that promotes violence.

The Ku Klux Klan and its history of rape, murder and lynchings cannot be separated from the burning cross. Not in Georgia or Virginia and not in Nova Scotia or anywhere else in Canada. To have set fire to a cross in Poplar Grove, northwest of Halifax, on the property of Shayne Howe, who is black, and Michelle Lyon, who is white, is to send a message aimed at intimidating this couple (and its five children) and, beyond them, terrorizing anyone else, black and white, tempted to support them or violate perceived racial norms, as defined by the Klan and its ilk.

Even the First Amendment in the United States is no bar to criminalizing the burning of crosses intended to intimidate. Justice Antonin Scalia called cross-burning as threatening as a gun. Justice Clarence Thomas said, "Just as one cannot burn down someone's house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment [protecting free speech] those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point."

Mr. Rehberg's defence - that his burning cross did not actually incite people to commit other hateful acts - is unpersuasive. Should Canadian law wait for a lynching before deciding that the act is illegal incitement? When the state, on behalf of the community, takes a strong position against cross-burnings and other acts of express intimidation against minorities, violence may be deterred. That is the point: the protection of minorities and, more broadly, the non-violent expression of views, two touchstones of Canadian democracy.

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