Imagine a legal system with government, courts and police. It's the job of police to enforce that system's laws; courts to apply them; and governments to review and make the laws that shape the system.
Imagine for a second that this system, in place for over a century, has a provision against hate speech in its Criminal Code, strong enough that those who violate it can spend up to two years in prison.
Now imagine that a whole new law comes into effect, 110 years after the legal system has been established. It sets up a parallel court, parallel laws and assumes separate jurisdiction over hate speech, effectively stacking one law on top of the other. And the ones who administer this new system don't even need law degrees.
Up until last week, this was precisely the case in Canada. Our government was capable of a despotic application of censorship laws and could haul you in for questioning just for offending someone.
It's called the Canadian Human Rights Act, and in 1977 it helped create the monsters that have sprung out of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and its sister Tribunal over the past several years. After 32 years of existence, the Tribunal only ruled last week that it can't police free speech anymore.
In an approximately 40,000-word decision issued Sept. 2, Tribunal Member Athanasios Hadjis ruled that Section 13 of the Act, which states it is discriminatory to transmit matter through telecommunication that might expose someone to hate, actually contravenes the portion of Canada's constitution that guarantees freedom of expression.
How did it come to this, you might ask.
The ruling came in a case called Warman v. Lemire, in which Richard Warman, a human rights lawyer and Canada's foremost complainant in Section 13 cases, brought a man named Marc Lemire before the tribunal.
Now Marc Lemire is no saint. He's a former leader of Canada's neo-Nazi Heritage Front organization, a man who's distributed flyers that read "immigration can kill you." He's also hosted Freedom Site, an online portal that hosts a score of hate sites including the Canadian Patriots Network.
Warman brought a Section 13 complaint against him alleging that he communicated messages that were hateful to Italians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Hattians, francophones, Blacks, First Nations, East Asians, Jews and homosexuals - quite the achievement for a bigot to offend so many in just a single complaint.
Warman, however, is a compelling figure all his own. See, he poses in reality as a human rights crusader, out to battle the underground haters who plague the planet. In cyberspace, meanwhile, he's a hater all his own with accounts on neo-Nazi websites he's used to post hateful content himself.
Using the pseudonym "Pogue Mahone" (Gaelic for "kiss my ass") to monitor messages on said websites, Warman uses his avatar to castigate homosexuals as "sexual deviants"; refer to Jewish cabinet ministers as "scum"; and encouraged fellow members of those sites to seek out copies of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf .
He did all this while an employee of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. And he did it in the course of building complaints against fringe haters like Lemire who meant nothing to the vulnerable of this country until Warman made an issue out of them.
In a shocking and sudden display of sanity, Hadjis ruled that Section 13 violates the part of our constitution that allows us to speak freely. In the end he only held Lemire to account for a single post titled "Aids secrets" - and even that was only seen by a total of eight people across Canada.
The ruling, should it stand in the face of an appeal, is a victory for the value of free speech in Canada, a rather limited one that Canadians don't appreciate enough. We in this country are too shy and fearful of free speech and through laws like Section 13, we're more keen to censor the ideas we don't like rather than challenge them.
It's a little like A Clockwork Orange . Lemire's bad, and Warman is forcing him to be good. Like the author Anthony Burgess, I think the latter is worse.