I have previously written (here and here) about how free speech is dying in the West, including the sanctioning of speech among our closest allies in France and England and Canada. The most recent case is out of Canada where a feminist author is facing a slander trial for merely expressing her contempt for an Islamic school. Djemila Benhabib, an award-winning author and past candidate for office in Quebec, is facing a demand for $95,000 from her for “greatly tarnishing” the image of the Muslim Schools of Montreal, a private institution that teaches elementary and high school. Her remarks occurred during a radio interview.
Benhabib was born in Ukraine in 1972 with a Muslim-Algerian father and Greek Cypriot mother. She is a leading critic of Islam and what she views as demeaning treatment of women. She was raised in a Muslim educational system. Along those lines, she opposed a private, Muslim school in Montreal which she compared to militant Islamic training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Benhabib objected to Islamic verses appearing on the school website, which were later removed. She also objected to a school pamphlet distributed in the community showing young girls wearing the hijab. Citing calls to learn to be faithful to Islam, Benhabib insisted that the school “resembles the kind of indoctrination similar to what goes on in a military camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” She also insisted that the school “models itself on a society different than ours. It’s a model where women have to lower their heads and walk behind men. Where kids are forced to learn Qur’anic verses and where, probably, men will commit honour crimes against their sisters.”
That all seems quite clearly opinion and would be protected speech in the United States. However, many have called for Benhabib’s liability for slander. Canada has shown the same type of intolerance for free speech that we have seen in Europe. Canada outlaws “any writing, sign or visible representation” that “incites hatred against any identifiable group.” These laws ban speech based not only on its content but on the reaction of others. Speakers are often called to answer for their divisive or insulting speech before bodies like the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
A Canadian court previously ruled that Marc Lemire, the webmaster of a far-right political site, could be punished for allowing third parties to leave insulting comments about homosexuals and blacks on the site. Echoing the logic behind blasphemy laws, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley ruled that “the minimal harm caused . . . to freedom of expression is far outweighed by the benefit it provides to vulnerable groups and to the promotion of equality.”
The trial of Benhabib raises the same danger of chilling political and religious speech. The school and its supporters are fully capable of responding to criticism with what they view as the truth. The solution to any bad speech is more speech — not attempts to silence critics though torts or criminal law.
The Benhabib case begins Sept. 26.