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LETTER: There is a place for shocking imagery in our cultural discourse


Doris Wrench Eisler, in her letter published in the St. Albert Gazette on Feb. 8 of this year ("Harmful speech is not free speech"), makes a common enough error in attempting to define speech with which she disagrees as "hate speech", before proceeding to argue that such speech as she finds distasteful is, QED, not free speech (and thus, presumably, not protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). While Canadian law does not explicitly define what constitutes "hatred", various justices who have been called upon to rule upon its meaning have tended to focus on the concept of "destruction". Hate speech, properly understood, is speech which is fundamentally destructive, either by way of calling for the explicit destruction of a person or persons based on specific criteria, or by way of denigrating a person or persons based on those criteria. Elsewhere in Canadian law, the former would fall under the category of "incitement" (e.g. to violence), and the latter under the category of "defamation" (and a few other kinds of tort).

Pro-life protests that depict the victims of abortion are certainly not easy to look upon, and some of the more explicit displays of this sort are indeed designed to make us feel a great unease at the idea of abortion. As well we should; abortion, regardless of the reason it may be performed for, ends a nascent human life, a life in its earliest stage of development. Granted, such displays aren't the only means of framing discussion about abortion, nor are they the most effective means ... but there is a place for shocking imagery in our cultural discourse; animal rights activism has made similar use thereof, for example.

Discomfiting as such images and displays may be, however, they are not quantifiable as hate speech as Canadian law understands it; they fail the "destructiveness" test that Canadian jurisprudence has established. Such displays, far from calling for violence against those who obtain or provide abortions, actually showcase the violence that IS abortion, and urge for its cessation. Nor do such displays defame anyone – either actually, or in intent. True, these displays do present us with the uncomfortable truth that abortion ends a life, and this may give some people who might otherwise consider obtaining an abortion pause. That's not a bad thing, though; if the act we are about to undertake will cause the deliberate, intended destruction of another human life (even a very small human), is any amount of pause prior to undertaking said action "too much"?

Kenneth Kully, St. Albert