Right-thinking people all over the country are applauding a judge’s decision to convict the editor and publisher of an awful little newspaper in Toronto’s east end of promoting hatred. They should not be. It’s always wrong to suppress speech, even the vilest kind. It is doubly wrong to use the criminal law to suppress it. Having an open society means guarding the right to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, whomever it may offend.
That the bizarre publication known as Your Ward News is offensive was never in doubt. Editor James Sears is a familiar figure on Toronto’s fringe, a ranter and raver who has run for mayor and who has boasted of his skills as a pick-up artist under the name Dimitri the Lover. After Monday’s verdict, he was comparing himself to Jesus and telling reporters: “I am prepared to be crucified.”
His paper bills itself as the world’s largest anti-Marxist publication, which is quite a claim. Justice Richard Blouin, who had the dubious honour of plowing through 22 issues, found it full of “unfocused and absurd opinions, contradictory messages and scattershot ramblings.” Among those ramblings, the judge found many slurs against Jews, feminists and women in general. The appendix to his judgment contains 17 pages of the stuff. He writes that while occasionally “love was professed” for Jews and some women, “hatred of Jews and women was overwhelmingly the message.”
There is a simple answer to this kind of claptrap: Throw it in the trash. Thousands have done exactly that since Your Ward News started appearing in Toronto mailboxes a few years ago. By far the best way to deal with attention-seeking trolls is simply to ignore them.
If the material is so repugnant that readers feel they can’t look the other way, there is a second way to respond: Challenge what the trolls say. Meet fantasy with facts. Publish your own counter-opinions. That is how a democratic society solves disputes - putting propositions to the test through argument and countering lies with truth. When social conservatives said a generation ago that gay people were sick individuals who posed a threat to the moral order, the courts did not silence them. Gay-rights activists and their allies fought back by debunking false and hateful claims. They won. Hate receded.
The opponents of Your Ward News chose another way. They brought in the power of the state. First, they campaigned to have Ottawa prevent the paper from being delivered with the mail. Federal authorities issued first a temporary, then a permanent ban. Now, they have won in the courts. Monday’s conviction on two counts of willful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group could bring up to six months in jail for Mr. Sears and his publisher, LeRoy St. Germaine. In fact, one of their foes, Bernie Farber, a former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said outside court that it would be good to see them “sit in jail for a little while.”
This is using a sledgehammer on a cockroach. Your Ward News is not worth the trouble. Judges should be judging serious crimes, not spending hours flipping through trash tabloids for evidence of criminal words. If someone punches someone else on the nose, it is right to summon police. When someone writes something that someone else finds insulting, the cops should stay out of it.
Once we bring the law in, how do we decide which publication should be brought up on charges? Does the Marxist tract that calls for a violent uprising against the rich encourage dangerous envy and hatred? How about the chauvinist paper that says Sri Lanka’s Tamils should go back to India? Or the Islamist website that claims Israelis occupying the West Bank are as bad as the Nazis?
Free speech is already under a cloud in Canada. Many universities have speech codes that limit what students can say. One teaching assistant found herself called on the carpet for showing video of the provocateur Jordan Peterson. The idea is spreading that, for the good of society, we should penalize those who spread hateful messages. The obvious danger is that we discourage the honest dissent and vigorous debate that help us work through our problems.
Mr. Farber said the Your Ward News decision was the “kind of verdict that Canadians are going to rejoice in.” They should worry instead.