The Supreme Court of Canada demonstrated a lack of belief in the value of free speech in yesterday’s Whatcott ruling:
The very first line in the Supreme Court’s calamitous decision in the case of Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott gives a clue to where it is going. “All rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” it declares, “are subject to reasonable limitations.”
This is a legal truism, but as always it is as important what the Court did not say. It did not choose to begin a ruling on an important freedom of speech case with a ringing affirmation of the importance of free speech, or what an extraordinary thing it is to place restrictions upon it.
Indeed, in its haste to get on with the limiting, it did not even pause to properly quote the section of the Charter that grants the state such authority. The Charter “guarantees” the rights set out in it, Section 1 declares, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The limits don’t just have to be reasonable. They have to be “demonstrably justified.”
Where the Court’s view of such limits is expansive and approving, the Charter is grudging (“only”) and cautious (“demonstrably”). That’s as it should be. If we accept the bedrock premise of a free society, that government is its servant and not its master, then it is up to the state, always, to ask the citizens’ permission before it intrudes on their liberty, and to prove its necessity: it is never the citizen’s obligation to show why he may remain unmolested. That spirit is lamentably absent from the Court’s reasoning.