The debate over the Online Harms Bill, C-63, represents a clash between wokeism and the principles of classical liberalism

Brian Giesbrecht: Online Harms Bill is bad law. It must not be passedThe debate over the Trudeau government’s proposed Online Harms Bill, C-63, is essentially a clash between contemporary progressive thinking and age-old principles of liberal democracy that prioritize the pursuit of truth. While opponents of the bill see it as a direct threat to freedom of speech, supporters believe it could further the cause of social justice.

My focus isn’t on the bill’s aspects aimed at shielding children from online dangers – a goal universally supported. The real issue lies with the bill’s provisions that permit individuals to anonymously accuse others of making “hateful” comments – a term defined by causing feelings of being “detested” or “vilified” – to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). Under this framework, mere emotional reactions can label someone as a criminal based on their online statements.

Moreover, if the complaint succeeds, the accused could be forced to compensate the anonymous complainant up to $20,000 and possibly face an additional $50,000 fine payable to the government all because they supposedly offended the anonymous complainant.

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There’s no need for speculation about how this operates in practice: we’ve observed its real-world application through Section 13, the precursor to C-63. One famous case involved Ezra Levant, now of Rebel News, who faced complaints for republishing Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed. This led to Levant spending years and a substantial portion of his finances on his defence.

Another famous case under Section 13 involved author and media personality Mark Steyn. It centred around discussions on Islamic topics. Although he ultimately won, the victory required significant effort and finances.

The Harper government repealed Section 13 primarily due to the fallout from these incidents. The underlying issue was that a commission, holding specific opinions on Islamic issues, had aggressively pursued legal action against two men who legitimately held different views.

This is precisely the scenario anticipated with this resurrected version of Section 13.

The contentious points might range from Islamic topics to numerous other subjects where opinions diverge.

Take, for instance, the topic of transgender rights. The prime minister’s famous tweet, “Trans women are women.” is considered a core principle of modern progressivism. Yet, this viewpoint is not universally accepted. According to Professor Eric Kaufman, author of the study “The politics of the culture wars in contemporary Canada,” only a third of Canadians agree with these progressive ideals, while the remaining two-thirds disagree. This division mirrors trends in both Britain and the United States. Those in the minority, passionate about their perspectives, feel compelled to reshape societal norms to reflect their views, insisting that the majority who disagree must be enlightened, even if coercively.

The issue with the proposed Online Harms Bill, C-63, becomes clear immediately. For instance, someone who disagrees with the statement “trans women are women” could face anonymous complaints filed to the CMHR. These cases would then be evaluated by appointees who, primarily due to their liberal and progressive beliefs, are predisposed to side with the complainant. Consequently, those challenged could face a situation similar to what Levant and Steyn experienced: protracted and costly legal processes for merely sharing a viewpoint held by most Canadians.

The issue of transgender rights is just one example among many that could trigger anonymous complaints. Consider the perspective that all allegations made by indigenous people should be accepted without skepticism. This belief, often associated with progressive ideologies, suggests that narratives emerging from indigenous communities should not be subjected to conventional scrutiny. The most dramatic example of this odd belief is the claim that 215 indigenous children were secretly buried at the former Kamloops Residential School, in some cases with the forced help of children as young as six. We are asked to believe this highly improbable claim simply because of stories circulating within indigenous communities.

The foundation of the classical truth-based liberal order, so painstakingly constructed and based on the principles of free and raucous debate, is crucial for its preservation. The ability to freely exchange ideas, regardless of how controversial, “hateful,” or annoying they may be to others, is essential to the preservation of democracy.

On the other hand, the progressive woke perspective demands that certain beliefs, such as systemic racism and the identity of trans women, must be accepted by everyone, at any cost.

This is the core of the current debate over the Online Harms Bill. A minority – the one-third – believes they possess the absolute truth and expect universal compliance. Meanwhile, the majority argues that truth cannot be dictated; it must be uncovered through unrestricted dialogue. Such discussions can be untidy and potentially offensive, leading to hurt feelings. However, this process of open debate is the very mechanism that has propelled our society forward.

The Online Harms Bill, C-63, as drafted, is bad law. It must not be passed.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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