THE BLOG
11/27/2007 02:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Calling Speech Restrictors "Enemies of Free Speech" Can Now Lead to Legal Liability in Canada

Richard Warman, a lawyer who worked as an investigator for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, often filed complaints against "hate speech" sites — complaints that were generally upheld under Canadian speech restrictions. Fromm, a defender of various Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, has been publicly condemning Warman for, among other things, being "an enemy of free speech." Warman sued, claiming that these condemnations are defamatory.

Friday, the Ontario Superior Court held for Warman — chiefly on the grounds that because Warman's claims were accepted by the legal system, they couldn't accurately be called an attack on free speech. Thus, for instance:

[25] The implication, as well as the clear of meaning of the words ["an enemy of free speech" and "escalated the war on free speech"], is that the plaintiff is doing something wrong. The comment "Well, see your tax dollars at work" also implies that Mr. Warman misused public funds for this "war on free speech".

[26] The plaintiff was using legal means to complain of speech that he alleged was "hate" speech.

[27] The evidence was that Mr. Warman was successful in both the complaint and a libel action which he instituted.

[28] Freedom of expression is not a right that has no boundaries. These parameters are outlined in various legislative directives and jurisprudence. I find Mr. Fromm has exceeded these. This posting is defamatory.

Likewise, apropos another statement ("Since then, a number of dissidents have been dragged before human rights tribunals, largely through the efforts of CHRC hatchetman Richard Warman"), the court responds:

[32] While opposition to legislation is permitted, it is defamatory to say that Mr. Warman is largely responsible for "dragging" dissidents before the human rights tribunal, when in fact the "dissidents" were disseminating prohibited hate speech. The tribunal upheld the complaint. This posting is also defamatory.

Likewise, here's another statement that the court treated as defamatory and legally punishable:
[48] At the press conference after Mr. Fromm's comments, he introduced three other people who spoke of their "problems with Richard Warman." Mr. Fromm added, after one speaker:

Thank you very much, Jason. So, for posting an opinion, the same sort of opinion that might have appeared in editorial pages in newspapers across this country, Jason and the Northern Alliance, his site has come under attack and people who are just ordinary Canadians find themselves in front of the courts for nothing more serious than expressing their opinion. This is being done with taxpayers' money. I find that reprehensible.

[49] In one posting Mr. Fromm describes Mr. Warman's "campaign of intimidation" recitingvarious actions taken by Mr. Warman. He states that freedom of the Internet was the key issue.

[50] Again Mr. Warman was referred to as acting like a one-man thought police agency.

[51] The plaintiff is accused of using taxpayer money to "restrict freedom of speech" and of refusing "to allow those with differing opinions the right to express their views."

[52] The tone of all these allegations is derisive and holds the plaintiff up to ridicule and contempt. The words themselves and the inferences to be drawn are all defamatory.

Likewise, the court says, "[59] Mr. Warman is criticized for his anti-hate speech stance, and his professionalism and integrity are attacked. This would lead a reasonable reader to conclude that the plaintiff was an ideologue who wanted only to deny freedom of speech to those with whom he disagrees. [60 ]I find this posting defamatory."

* * *

It seems to me that Fromm was simply expressing opinions that the court disapproved of — that people who try to restrict "hate speech" are "enem[ies] of free speech," that people who are punished for hate speech are "dissidents," that people who for ideological reasons use the law to restrict speech they disagree with are ideologues who want only to deny freedom of speech to those with whom they disagree. Who is an "enemy of free speech" obviously turns on the speaker's view of free speech, and the view that he expects his audience to share, or that he wants to persuade his audience to share. Who deserves to be labeled with the generally positive term "dissident" depends on what dissent the speaker believes to be legitimate and morally proper.

Yet the Canadian justice system not only allows the suppression of certain viewpoints, and excludes them from free speech restrictions. With this case, it also tries to deny critics the right to label the speech they support "free speech," and the dissenters they like "dissidents."

The court is insisting that Canadians' speech not only follows the government-approved ideology on the topic of race, ethnicity, and religion (an ideology that I agree with, but that I don't think should be legally coerced). It is also insisting that Canadians' speech follows the government-approved ideology and terminology on the topic of free speech itself.

Some of the other statements come closer to factual falsehood, for instance when Fromm says Warman went after "tax-fighter Richard Kyburz"; a reader may infer that Warman went after Kyburz because of Kyburz's stance on taxes, rather than because of Kyburz's anti-Semitic speech. I'm not sure that even those, in context, should properly be seen as legally punishable. But the court's decision is in any event much broader than these statements.

For a conceptual connection to the Sedition Act controversy in 1800 United States, see here.