Today the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a highly anticipated case on Canada’s freedom of religion and speech laws.  The case involves Bill Whatcott and his passionate, public promotion of anti-gay and anti-abortion views, all in the name of his religion.

Kirk Makin provides a good summary in today’s Globe and Mail.

Whatcott’s Case

A prostitute in his youth, Whatcott found religion and, apparently, also found a hateful perspective on some of the issues that tend to push the buttons of Canadians.  In 2005, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal ordered Whatcott to pay $17,500 to four individuals after he put anti-gay leaflets in their mailboxes.  In February 2010, the Tribunal’s decision was overturned, and today, the parties will make their arguments to the SCC.

The case will turn on whether Whatcott’s flyers contravened section 14 of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code:

14(1) No person shall publish or display, or cause or permit to be published or displayed, on any lands or premises or in a newspaper, through a television or radio broadcasting station or any other broadcasting device, or in any printed matter or publication or by means of any other medium that the person owns, controls, distributes or sells, any representation, including any notice, sign, symbol, emblem, article, statement or other representation:

(a) tending or likely to tend to deprive, abridge or otherwise restrict the enjoyment by any person or class of persons, on the basis of a prohibited ground, of any right to which that person or class of persons is entitled under law; or

(b) that exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person or class of persons on the basis of a prohibited ground.

(2) Nothing in subsection (1) restricts the right to freedom of expression under the law upon any subject.

Clear as mud:  you cannot publish or display anything hateful to another person’s dignity, but nothing in the provision restricts the right of freedom of expression.

Freedom of Expression

So do Canadians have the right to say hateful things?  While the US speaks of “free speech” as a religion in of itself, in our land of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we can say anything we want, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

Clearly, a PR firm did not write our Charter, but it does provide a more sophisticated, albeit complicated approach to the issue of free speech.  This is not, and never will be, a black and white issue.  As a society, we want to deal with discrimination and hateful comments effectively.  However, although I may think Whatcott has archaic and ridiculous views about being gay or a woman’s right to make choices about her own body, I do feel uncomfortable shutting him down completely – that really is a legal dictatorship that relies on mortal law makers getting it right in the first place.

Freedom of Speech in the Workplace

Having said that, I do believe that placing some limits on free speech in the workplace makes sense.  Employees come to work and require a space to thrive, and to keep the company productive.  Unlike the choices we can make outside of the workplace, an employee cannot escape, or choose to sit at a different table at the restaurant client meeting, or choose a different co-worker to share an office with, or decide to not interact with a department that promotes hateful comments about him or her.

The workplace is a confined space, a micro-environment, that requires a common workplace culture to promote employee buy-in and sense of belonging, to keep everyone productive.  If your employees have nutty views – or hateful views – on the big ticket issues, the workplace is not the venue to push the envelope on freedom of speech.

Workplace policies, having your managers lead by example, openly supporting employees you see may be targets of intolerant comments and behaviours are all common sense necessities to balance our society’s right to free speech in the workplace.

Have you had any recent experience with “free speech” issues in the workplace?  Have you run across any innovative ways to deal with it?  I’d love to hear from you.

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