Border guards & free speech – In which I side with the homophobes?

On my bus the other day I overheard a couple chatting about last month’s incident in which USAmerican fundamentalist Christian protesters from the Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Kansas were turned away at the Canadian border, and it got me thinking.

I’m no fan of the congregation, or its founder Fred Phelps.  They invite you into their website (charmingly URLed – I’m not going to give them any link love, so if you want to see you can cut & paste) by proclaiming “Welcome, depraved sons and daughters of Adam.”  Nice.  (Hated *and* depraved – double doozy!  And what about Eve?) No need to worry that they’re unduly targetting gays, because aparently “God Hates Canada” too.  And Pakistan.  And the UK with their “filthy manner of life” (yes I think it’s okay to giggle at this), and probably a lot of other places I could have found out about if I really cared to linger on the site.

For those unfamiliar with the group, they do wingnutty things like give thanks for people dying in plane crashes and storms, because those acts are clearly God’s retribution for sinful human behaviour.  They picket pretty much anywhere and everywhere. Every once in a while they get some major media attention and I think that really makes their day.

Normally, then, I wouldn’t be writing a post that calls attention to WBC at all.  However, when they were turned back at the Canadian border a few weeks ago, while on their way to picket a funeral, I was really given pause.

The WBC wanted to picket at the funeral of Tim McLean, Jr, the young man from Winnepeg who was killed on the Greyhound bus this summer. According to the WBC, this bizarre tragedy is a symbol of divine retibution against Canada for our “idols, false gods, and filthy ways,” and somehow picketing at a funeral seems to them to be a positive choice.

In fact, picketing at a funeral is generally a tasteless and terrible choice. I think most people can agree about that. Funerals tend to have some aura of sacredness around them, and molesting people who are dealing with fresh grief seems especially despicable.  I feel no hesitation in saying that the WBC picketing McLean’s funeral would have been wrong.

However, I do not believe it would have necessarily been illegal.

To my knowledge, there is no Canadian law against protest at funerals. There is not even a protective funeral “bubble zone” the way there is around abortion-providing clinics. (Perhaps there should be?) There is, definitely, Canadian law against Hate Propaganda (Criminal Code part VIII, sec. 318-320), that prohibits advocating/promoting genocide (318), publicly inciting (319.1) or willfully promoting (319.2) hatred against an identifiable group. My understanding is also that there is potential for religious groups to invoke a notwithstanding clause to be allowed to express religiously-motivated hate, a la Hugh Owens or anti-gay preachers across the country.

Looking at the law, I have to assume that WBC members were denied entry into the country on the basis that they were allegedly planning to incite (“where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace”) and/or willfully promote hatred. Against…Canadians?  Gays?  I’m not totally sure – the WBC targets so many people that I’m not convinced there’s an identifiable group they are a realistic threat toward, frankly. Of course, I also disagree with laws against hate speech, because I don’t see outlawing expression doing much to end hate and oppression.  I’m of the “sunshine is the best disinfectant” school.

Non-Canadians have no guaranteed right to enter the country. As an immigrant I am well aware that entry is a privilege that can be taken away at the discretion of any border guard. I assume the border authorities denied the WBC members entry on the basis that they were presumed to be likely to disturb the peace and “willfully promote hatred” with their tasteless protest. This decision was generally applauded, from what I could see, and the government was painted as sticking up for Canadian values of peace and security, as well as protecting the gay community, McLean’s family, and Winnepegers in general.

And that’s what makes me really uncomfortable.

As much as I think WBC is ridiculous and uses tasteless tactics – and yes, I would consider them a “hate group” – I think it is more in keeping with values of peace and democracy to allow them entry until they break a law, rather than prophylacticaly bar them from the country. Unless the group has a record of entering Canada and illegally disturbing the peace (for example, doing violence to someone, actually starting a riot, etc.), I do not agree that there is grounds to prevent them from entering now.

If border guards are stopping one group because they intend to protest in a way that is not in accordance with “Canadian values,” what’s to stop them from barring other groups? Radical queer groups, for example? Anti-globalization groups?  Anti-racism groups? Anarchists? Who defines “Canadian values”? And who keeps watch to ensure that those definitions are applied fairly to all, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, or other characteristics. Based on the censorship we see applied in a very targetted manner by customs (remember the experience Little Sister’s Bookstore has had being targetted by customs censorship), I would caution queer and anti-hate groups against celebrating this move as a victory. It may well be us next time who are denied entry because we are allegedly likely to disturb the peace.




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3 responses to “Border guards & free speech – In which I side with the homophobes?

  1. Nate Phelps

    You qualify your position by saying “Unless the group has a record of entering Canada and illegally disturbing the peace (for example, doing violence to someone, actually starting a riot, etc.), I do not agree that there is grounds to prevent them from entering now.” Well, in fact, my family does have a record of entering Canada and illegally disturbing the peace. They came into the country a few years back to protest Canada’s decision to allow gay marriages. Their signs were confiscated upon their arrival, so they improvised by using Canadian flags, turning them upside down and writing their message on them. I understand that they were escorted from the country and told they would face arrest if they came back and tried it again.

    While I agree with being reticent to let our government overstep and anticipate illegal activity, I don’t believe this is a good case study of that concern. My father and siblings have a well documented history of activity that would fall square into Canada’s anti-hate legislation. Considering that as well as the harm it would do to the mourning McLean family is more then enough justification in my mind to keep them out.

    Nate Phelps

  2. greyson

    Thanks for your reply, Nate. I’ll look more into the incident in Toronto, and think over whether I personally think what happened then justifies future barring from the country. I do appreciate your unique insight into the WBC’s activities.

    Nonetheless, I do think Canada takes the “hate speech” laws too far, in a way that is too easily arbitrary or biased in appplication. I’d rather have people waving signs that say they hate me, than to have to worry that my own signs are going to be confiscated. And I worry that groups such as gay rights groups, who are so frequently targetted by government censors, responded to the issue of what speech was censored in this case, rather than looking at the free expression issue as a whole.

  3. Pingback: Are hate speech laws unconstitutional? « Social Justice Librarian

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