The Liberal government of Quebec is at risk of sinking into the quicksand that is "hate speech."
Bill 59, which is before the National Assembly, was meant to combat the radicalization of Muslim youths. Just a little bit more thought would have made the government realize that the bill could end up punishing strong, or merely shrill, language expressed by vigorous opponents of radicalized Muslims, too.
Such a flaw is built into any attempts to legislate against hate speech that targets people "sharing a characteristic" and which might result in violence – as opposed to private lawsuits for defamation, or criminal prosecutions with civil-liberties protections.
Agnès Maltais, a Parti Québécois MNA, pointed out in a committee hearing on the bill that Premier Philippe Couillard could be prosecuted by the commission's tribunal for having said, "Jihadism, radical Islamic terrorism, is the mortal enemy of democracy. We have to fight it with the weapons that fit the intensity of the threat." And for matter, "I hate sovereigntists."
As for the Coalition Avenir Québec, it wants the bill to go further, having shed its previous moderation. Nathalie Roy, an MNA, said that the government is failing to "attack the true problem, which is the radicalization" of young people.
In early 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a finding of "hate promotion" against William Whatcott, a virulently anti-gay pamphleteer in Saskatchewan, who said, for example, that "our children will pay the price in disease, death, abuse" as a result of the tolerance of homosexuality. But there is no reason for any province to pass such a law. Nothing compels Quebec to tie itself in knots over angry words. Actual violence, and real attempts, should remain the targets of criminal law.
Singling out one range of opinions as hateful is invidious. The eminent lawyer Julius Grey was right to say at the hearing that, 60 years ago, the targets would have been Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists and homosexuals. Quebec has no reason now to revert to the bad old days.