Liberals' 'online harms' bill could stifle free speech: experts

'There is no obvious need or rationale for penalties of life in prison for offences motivated by hatred, nor the need to weaponize human rights complaints,' said Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa's Canada Research Chair in internet law.

Liberals' 'online harms' bill could stifle free speech: experts
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Proposed changes in the Trudeau Liberals' new 'online harms' bill could see a flood of perceived hate crimes being filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, experts are warning.

On Monday, Justice Minister Arif Virani unveiled Bill C-63, the 'online harms' bill, which aims to regulate exposure to 'harmful' online content. However, in doing so, the legislation would attempt to define “hate” in the Criminal Code and could result in convictions of up to life in prison.

Changes to the Human Rights Act would allow for complaints to be filed against individuals accused of posting 'hate speech' online and could result in the accused paying the victim up to $20,000. 

 “We’re very concerned that comedians, and even people just trying to have difficult conversations about things like gender or immigration or religion, are going to be faced with complaints,” the Canadian Constitution Foundation's Josh Dehaas told the Globe and Mail.

“Even if the complaints don’t go anywhere, they’ll be able to be threatened – ‘if you don’t take that tweet down, or if you don’t stop with that comedy routine, I’m going to take you to the Human Rights Tribunal’ – and that threat alone is going to cause a lot of damage,” he added.

In an appearance on CBC radio, Justice Minister Virani attempted to quell concerns over the government putting restrictions on Canadians' rights. 

“People insult groups or people or races or religions all of the time. That's going to continue to be awful but lawful,” he said.

But opening the door to human rights complaints could lead to 'weaponized' hate speech complaints, warns Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law.

“There is no obvious need or rationale for penalties of life in prison for offences motivated by hatred, nor the need to weaponize human rights complaints by reviving Human Rights Act provisions on communication of hate speech,” Geist wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

The legislation echoes a former piece of the Human Rights Act that was stripped in 2013 by former prime minister Stephen Harper's government.

“Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act is back, and likely to be weaponized against Canadian expression,” wrote Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms lawyer Marty Moore on X, formerly Twitter, noting Bill C-63's punitive punishments “will chill speech.”

Pointing out the hypocrisy between how the Trudeau government define those under the age of 18 as a “child” but refers to “mature minors” in the controversial Medical Assistance in Dying program, lawyer Daniel Freiheit said it must be “Easier on their conscience that way.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party will “look at the details of the legislation,” but the NDP backed the “general principle” of the online harms bill. The Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, has not said whether it has made a decision to support the legislation yet. A statement from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to the Globe and Mail said the party did not believe in “censoring opinions.”

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