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CBSA border guards inspect vehicles at the Sumas border crossing in Abbotsford, British Columbia on April 2, 2013.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Canadian customs officers will have another reason to comb through travellers' computers because Ottawa's new anti-terror bill will empower them to confiscate anything falling under the broadly defined category of "terrorist propaganda" at border checkpoints.

A little-noticed amendment in C-51, the Conservative government's Anti-Terrorism Act, adds the broad category of "writings, signs, visible representations or audio recordings that constitute terrorist propaganda" to the list of things Canada Border Services Agency officials can seize without a warrant from those entering Canada.

"If they have a suspicion, I think it is possible they could go through your computer," University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach says.

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Much of the debate over the controversial legislation's proposal to fight terrorist propaganda has focused on the manner in which authorities might delete this material from Internet sites that operate within Canadian jurisdiction.

But C-51, which the Harper government says it wants to make law before the summer, would also make custom officers responsible for stopping the importation into Canada of anything that advocates terrorism – in the same way they screen for hate propaganda and obscene material.

Two Canadian law professors say the problem with this is Ottawa is creating a new concept of "terrorist propaganda" in the Criminal Code that goes beyond directly counselling the commission of violent acts. The bill targets any material that "knowingly advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general."

This will be left to border guards to police. The force has struggled in the past in applying the rules to pornography. Customs rules provide for detention of material for up to 30 days while authorities decide whether the material is prohibited from entry.

Prof. Roach and Craig Forcese, an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa, note a British bookstore owner was convicted of disseminating terrorist publications for material including a DVD about the life of Malcolm X that included interviews with men who died fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Later, a higher court overturned his conviction.

"Given the difficulty two U.K. courts with a total of four judges had weighing this question, we are troubled by the thoughts of customs officials deciding 'what material is too inherently dangerous'" with no legal process or independent review of their decision making, the legal experts write in a report released Monday.

The Canadian Border Services Agency was unable to answer questions about this new proposed mandate for customs officials on Monday.

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The law professors warn the bill, as written, could forbid advocacy for political violence that many would regard as mainstream in Canada, such as contesting the Assad regime in Syria or speech that advances an argument in favour of violence without directly urging it.

"To say 'freedom fighters in the Ukraine should resist the Russian occupation with violence, even if it means bringing the conflict to Russian cities' does not directly threaten violence. It merely advances an argument in favour of that violence, leaving it to the listener to be persuaded or not of its merits. This is exactly the substance of free speech: the idea need not be palatable, but it remains an idea," the authors say.

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