Paula Simons: Criminalizing speech won’t reduce anti-Semitism

We risk giving neo-Nazis and racists a perfect excuse to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of free speech
A heckler screams at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a town hall meeting on Jan. 18, 2018 in Quebec City. Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press.

This essay is adapted from a speech given by Senator Paula Simons in response to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada contained in the government’s budget act. Read the full speech or watch the video here.

Forty years ago ⁠— the very same year that Canada adopted its Charter of Rights and Freedoms ⁠— Alberta was convulsed in a political and legal debate over Holocaust denialism and the trials of Jim Keegstra.

Keegstra had been a high school social studies teacher in the village of Eckville.

He taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax, faked by a international Jewish conspiracy to control the world, and the global economy. He taught his horrific hate for years, without being stopped by any principal or school board ⁠— until one heroic mum, Susan Maddox, fought to have Keegstra fired. He finally was, in 1982. Two years later, he lost his teaching licence.

So far, so good. But in 1984, Jim Keegstra was also charged, criminally, with the willful promotion of hatred. That case, fought all the way to the Supreme Court, twice, there and back again, finally concluded in 1996, with a conviction…and a sentence of a mere 200 hours of community service.

The landmark legal precedent in the Keegstra case established the constitutionality of Canada’s hate speech legislation.

But far from silencing Keegstra, much less changing his mind, those 12 years of appeals and retrials gave him a bully pulpit to posture as a false defender of civil liberties – and to amplify his conspiracy theories.

He basked in national notoriety. In 1987, he was catapulted from being a village school teacher to leader of the federal Social Credit Party. Meanwhile, Keegstra’s lawyer, a fellow Holocaust denier named Doug Christie, used the profile he gained while defending Keegstra, to become the founder and leader of the Western Canada Concept separatist party.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jim Keegstra, Doug Christie, and their dark legacy this week, as the Senate has been debating Bill C-19, the new budget implementation act.

Hidden away in the fine print of the budget bill is a line that amends the Criminal Code of Canada. Bill C-19 creates a new offence: to “prohibit the communication of statements, other than in private conversation, that willfully promote antisemitism by condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust.” The crime would be punishable by up to two years in prison.

This little provision, hidden away in the budget bill, hasn’t had much public attention. But I fear it’s a ticking time bomb.

As the Keegstra case amply demonstrates, denying the Holocaust is already a hate crime – making this law redundant at best. But prosecutions of this type often have ugly, unintended consequences.

As the child of a Jewish father and a German mother, let me very very clear. There is no good faith way to ‘debate’ or ‘question’ the reality of the Holocaust, one of the best-documented, well-researched atrocities in modern history. Anyone who questions or denies or diminishes its full genocidal horrors is not engaging in authentic intellectual debate.

Holocaust deniers are, by definition, hate-mongers. There is simply no way to question or interrogate the reality of the Shoah that is not, by definition, anti-Semitic.

Downplaying the Holocaust is every bit as morally vile.

Instead of criminalizing speech, let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over.

When people who oppose masking rules pin yellow stars to their chests, and or dare to compare vaccine mandates to the Nazi war crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg?

Their facile appropriation the horror of the Holocaust dishonours the memory of all those who died ⁠— and all who survived.

Yet attaching criminal penalties to such statements and actions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. It will, instead, give neo-Nazis and racists a perfect excuse to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of free speech, and to claim the public spotlight as faux defenders of “intellectual freedom.”

Slipping this criminal code amendment into a budget bill could well open the door for hundreds of new hate-mongers and bigots to claim victimization, to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, spreading their bile via every social media channel, in ways Keegstra could never have imagined. He had a small captive audience of Eckville school children. Today’s anti-Semites spray their bile to hundreds of thousands of people with the click of a keyboard.

I’ve spent my whole life as an advocate for free speech and civil liberties. I learned that from my father, from my uncle, from my grandfather – all passionate Jewish civil libertarians who taught me early not to trust in the power of the state as protection.

I do not believe we can fight hate by criminalizing speech, however vile or deluded. Nor by silencing it — even if we could. Driving hate underground to curdle and fester doesn’t help.

Once we start to criminalize speech, to police, literally, what is true and what is false, once we use the Criminal Code and the criminal courts to silence the nasty political fringe, we start down a path that leads precisely where we do not wish to go. This strategy will only convince the paranoid and the conspiracy-prone that they are correct. It plays right into the hands of the far-right thought scammers and grifters who prey on fear and ignorance.

I have no doubt the government is well-intentioned, in making this amendment. Many in the Jewish community have advocated for precisely this change — and many in the Jewish community, including many I love, will disagree me, vehemently.

But my father, of blessed memory, had a line he liked to use, half-joking and half-not — “Is it good for the Yidden?” Is it good for the Jews?

This bill will not be good for the Yidden. Nor for Canada.

Instead of criminalizing speech, let’s be sure we tell the real stories of the Holocaust and of the rise of Hitler, over and over.

Let’s record and remember and reamplify the stories of the survivors, before they themselves are overtaken by time, and no longer with us to bear witness.

Instead of arresting and charging every online hatemonger and troll — a next to impossible task — we should focus, instead, on making the big tech platforms more transparent and more accountable for the way their algorithms privilege and promote incendiary hateful speech.

Especially now, with hate crimes of all kinds multiplying, with social media platforms aerosolizing racism, with neo-Nazis parading proudly through our streets, with mainstream Canadian parliamentarians embracing and spreading conspiracy theories and classic anti-Semitic tropes, we must call out lies and champion the truth.

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