Sarah Leamon: Ticketing racism is no panacea for hate

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      British Columbia has a hate-speech problem.

      More and more often, seemingly ordinary citizens are being caught on-camera expressing harmful racist and prejudicial views in places like parking lots, restaurants, and shopping centers. It’s a disturbing trend, and something needs to be done about it.

      This has caused the provincial government to look into options aimed at curbing such distasteful public displays in the future.

      Ravi Kahlon, the MLA from Delta North, is one such politician. He has written to Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, asking that the province take action against “racist and hateful behaviour".

      One of the options that Kahlon has suggested is rather unusual. It is to pass new laws, creating provincial noncriminal sanctions for those who express racist or intolerant sentiments in public places. Under a scheme like this, a ticket would be issued to the offender, and a monetary fine would be payable to the province. It would be like a traffic ticket, but for discriminatory hate speech instead of poor driving behavior.

      If this seems like a good measure to you, though, you may want to think twice.

      Ticketing hate speech creates a slippery slope, which may ultimately work backward from its very objective by fostering more extremist sentiments while simultaneously delegitimizing the seriousness of this type of conduct. 

      The first problem will come down to what will constitute a ticketable offence and which ideological yardstick we are using. 

      Governing the legality of speech is no simple feat, and the potential for censorship is real. 

      By prohibiting free expression under threat of official punishment, we are effectively prohibiting the free exchange of ideas and the opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse—even if that discourse is uncomfortable or offensive at times.

      It is an undeniable fact that when people express ideas—even bad ideas—a dialogue occurs. As a person receives community feedback, additional information and other points of view, a space can be carved out for change. And even in situations where no immediate change occurs, there is potential for healing through transparency, openness, and expression.    

      Moreover, if people cannot speak freely, they may become more inflexible and extreme. 

      The fear of punishment may cause those with extremist opinions to express them only in similar company or not at all. This could create ideological echo-chambers—breeding grounds of misinformation and hate. Their own opinions will only be reflected back to them, reinforcing them without challenge or concern. 

      It will push the hate further underground, making it all the more difficult to uproot. Although potentially uncomfortable, there is an unassailable benefit to openness. 

      NDP MLA Ravi Kahlon has asked Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth to examine if noncriminal sanctions, such as ticketing, could curb racism.

      The idea of enforcing monetary penalties for those who express distasteful opinions or use impugned language may also disproportionately affect marginalized peoples. The reality of prejudicial police practices and profiling is something that we cannot simply disregard when contemplating new laws such as these. 

      People who engage in loud, public outbursts of racism may not be of sound mind.

      Those suffering from mental illness or from addictions issues may be less capable of governing their public discourse and steering clear of prohibited language and expressions. The same may be said for those who are less educated or who lack the language skills to properly express themselves.

      In this way, imposing monetary fines and seeking to police the language of already marginalized individuals is ironically discriminatory in and of itself.  

      That being said, real instances of unsafe and threatening hate speech cannot be tolerated in a free and democratic society, such as ours. 

      When expression pushes the boundaries into hate speech, the case for state intervention becomes more pronounced. 

      This is exactly why we already have a number of criminal laws in place, which make it an offence to publicly incite or promote hatred. These types of charges are reserved for the most severe cases of racially motivated and discriminatory speech. 

      And the punishments are reflected in their severity.

      If a person is found guilty of such an offence, they could go to jail. The maximum punishment for inciting or promoting hatred is not more than two years in prison. They could also face the imposition of a criminal record, arguably one of the most severe forms of stigmatization and denunciation when it comes to any form of social conduct. 

      This all sends a clear message—there is no room for hate speech in Canada.

      To scale the penalties for such unacceptable behaviour back to a mere monetary fine would send mixed signals about this type of behavior. It could lead to an increase of situations where serious transgressions are treated in an inconsequential manner by state authorities. 

      So, while the idea of creating provincial bylaws to correct hate speech may seem like a great quick fix to a complicated and nuanced problem, keep in mind that it is just that—a quick fix.

      And when it comes to shifting societal attitudes and creating meaningful cultural change, there is no quick fix. 

      We have to do the work to get there.