Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hate speech case of the day

Something interesting from the case of Canadian Jewish Congress v. North Shore Free Press Ltd [1997]. The case is about some newspaper articles by one Doug Collins, at which both Harry Abrams and the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) took offense. A link to the case is here.

Notice at paragraph 232, the discussion of the 'neutral reporter' defence in hate speech complaints. As some background, it should be understood that in hate speech cases, as with any other complaint of discrimination, intent is not relevant to liability. Meaning, if someone's actions, words, drawings, etc. are found to have been discriminatory, it does not matter whether the discrimination was intentional or not. The main reason for this rule is that human rights laws are supposed to catch systemic types of bigotry and prejudice, which may be unconscious.

The 'neutral reporter' defence would normally be available to someone who was merely repeating the impugned communications of another party for their news value. The tribunal mentions a case from Denmark where a TV news reporter was charged with a criminal offence for presenting an interview with a member of a far-right group. Could something similar happen under s. 7 of the BC Human Rights Code (obviously not a criminal charge, but a complaint?) In my opinion, the tribunal's treatment of the issue is a bit murky, and no doubt there are better explanations in other cases.

In brief, the tribunal says that it would have to consider the "tone and style of the reporting," as well as a number of other factors, such as whether the reporting came under the news or the op/ed section, and the news value of the piece. The tribunal member, Nitya Iyer, then writes that s.7 would likely catch"reporting which exploits and sensationalizes hateful or contemptuous views without regard for the impact, not only of what is reported but also of the report itself, on vulnerable groups."

Suffice to say, that seems to be a pretty broad basis for judicial oversight of the media.