Ottawa says human rights body would only investigate extreme hate speech online

The bill seeks to introduce harsher penalties for existing hate propaganda crimes and up to life imprisonment for advocating genocide.

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OTTAWA – Government officials say online hate speech would have to portray a group as “inherently violent” or “inhumane” to meet the threshold for investigation by a human rights court under a newly proposed law.

Justice officials briefed reporters Wednesday on Criminal Code provisions included in the government’s new bill to address online harms, known as Bill C-63.

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The changes have come under harsh criticism from civil liberties groups and legal experts who express concerns about the potential chilling of free speech.

They also come after liberals received significant pushback, especially from opposition conservatives, to other laws to regulate tech giants over their streaming platforms and their use of news content.

Bill C-63, also known as the Online Harms Act, seeks to introduce harsher penalties for existing offences. It would allow sentences of up to five years in prison for hate propaganda, compared to the current two years. It would also allow a judge to impose a life sentence for advocating genocide.

Such measures are “draconian,” the Canadian Civil Liberties Associated warned, adding that they could stifle public discourse, including by “criminalizing political activism.”

The legislation lands amid a debate, fueled by the war between Israel and Hamas, over what constitutes hate speech versus free speech, and what should be considered the threshold for defending genocide.

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Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and took 250 more hostage in an attack on southern Israel on October 7. Israel has retaliated in a war that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to officials in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Amid widespread protests in Canada and abroad, advocates have been raising the alarm about hate-motivated attacks against Jews and Muslims.

Jewish advocacy groups have called for more police action, saying protesters have engaged in anti-Semitic and hateful behavior.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have said they feel vilified and Muslim organizations have expressed concern about people being censored for their comments about the war.

Justice officials, who spoke to reporters on condition that their names not be revealed, stressed that a high threshold would need to be met for a court to convict someone of advocating genocide.

Not only would a provincial attorney general have to approve such a charge, but a judge would have to be convinced that an individual “is directly seeking out others to incite or provoke others to commit genocide.”

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A chant heard at some protests since the war – “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – has been at the center of the debate over where the line is when it comes to hate speech.

Some Jewish groups have said it calls for the destruction of Israel, which lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and should therefore be considered hate speech or promotion of genocide.

Palestinian protesters and other supporters have said it is simply a call for freedom and equality.

Last fall, a man whose lawyer said he had chanted the phrase was charged in Calgary with hate rioting. The charge was eventually stayed.

The main goal of the Liberal government’s bill is to tackle online hate by introducing a new regulator for social media companies.

But it also proposes reintroducing a section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that would allow people to file complaints against those who post hate speech online.

Officials said the bill includes an improved version of language that was removed under Stephen Harper’s previous Conservative government.

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Known as Section 13, the original version raised concerns among critics, including Conservative MPs, about its potential impact on free speech rights.

It defined hate speech as anything “that may expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” on the basis of race, gender, religion or other prohibited grounds of discrimination.

In both its human rights legislation and the Penal Code, the government is now seeking to define hate speech as “content that expresses hatred or defamation.”

Under the proposed law, an individual or group could file a complaint about online hate speech with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Officials said the commission would look for unfounded complaints and send legitimate ones to a court for a hearing.

Remedies could include ordering the perpetrator to remove his posts or paying the victim up to $20,000 in damages, a penalty that would increase to $50,000 if he refuses to comply, department officials said.

Speech deemed worthy of action includes anything that “presents the groups as inherently violent, inhumane and worthy of execution or banishment,” one official said.

It would not include content that criticizes or belittles a group and attacks its dignity through jokes, mockery or insults. Content that advocates taking away a group’s rights would also not meet the “hatred or defamation” standard, the official said.

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