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David Ahenakew gets a new trial

I'm not a big fan of racists and bigots, just wait to see me when the gay marriage stuff starts bringing out the Conservative troglodytes, and I understand the need for hate crime legislation, but I'm glad David Ahenakew is being given a new trial. I know that some of you might be surprised at reading this from this otherwise pale pinko blog, but I've gone and said it. (Forgive me, Flash.) Why do I think that he deserves a new trial? Because I think that he was wrongfully committed the first time around. Ouch - there I go digging myself in further.

The reason I feel that he was wrongfully committed is that I believe the odious foolishness that he uttered was not meant for attribution or reporting and therefore he was guilty not of "spreading hate", but of saying dumb shit while angry. If he said to the reporter - "Here's something to print; I think Hitler...", but I don't think anyone has claimed that he did anything of the sort.

Now, I'm not defending his remarks and I don't doubt that he has racist beliefs, stuff like this doesn't just happen to come out of nowhere, but considering that the statements were made during an interview which even the reporter described as heated and not while on a podium in an attempt to rally like-minded racists to a cause implies to me that they were unintentional. We cannot outlaw racist beliefs, and I don't think that the purpose of the hate laws is to make racism, or any "ism" illegal, rather they make it illegal to spread them and they stiffen the penalties on crimes that use them as justification. There is no doubt in my mind that his comments were stupid and racist, but there is doubt in my mind that they were intended to spread racism, and that doubt is all that should be needed in a court.

The reason for hate laws, as I understand them, is to prevent people from committing or inciting acts of offense on another based on their membership in a specific group, whether it be racial, ethnic, religious, gender, whatever. What Ahenakew said did not hurt anyone, aside from himself of course, and anyone that claims otherwise is stretching the definition of "harm" to absurd lengths. This has not restrained some from claiming harm by the remarks, for instance David Katzman, of Congregation Agudas Israel in Saskatoon:
"I thought that the evidence was clear," Katzman said. "Freedom of speech has its natural limits. People can't stand up in a theatre and shout 'fire.' And I don't think any one person can label another group as a disease."
Correct, no one should label an entire group in any way, but neither should we be arresting people who say stupid things that were not intended to harm anyone. In no way was Ahenakew "shouting 'fire'" - this comment implies the belief that Canada is simply bristling with racist sentiment waiting for someone to set it off and either is born of paranoia and distrust or from a sense of victimization that is looking for outlet. Perhaps Katzman and Hedy Fry should go on a "burning cross" tour together sometime, they might like each other's company.

Again, I will not defend Ahenakew's comments, but any limits to free speech have to be very carefully considered and at the very least we have to allow for all but attempts to incite harm upon another. He admitted at the time, and this is the basis for which the conviction was overturned, that he was speaking in anger with the reporter and was trying to make some sort of analog to the plight of Canadian native peoples. He apologized for the remarks and that really should be the end of it.

I am aware that not everyone feels this way.

I'll read your view in more detail tomorrow, but the reason Ahenakew was ConVicted, was because he was speaking to a reporter views which are bad enough to hold privately, but criminal to express them. Justifying the Holocaust by calling Jews "a disease", in a conversation with a news reporter, is as good as broadcasting a hate message. What if the reporter had published his words without framing them properly as outlandishly stupid?
In Ontario [I think it was], the ISP owned by neo-nazis for the purpose of publishing hate literature was found guilty of spreading hate. How was the reporter to accurately reflect the content of the interview, without possibly being held liable for hate speech too?

Thoughtcrime!

Seriously, though, I must respectfully disagree - a first for this site, I think (both the disagreement and the respectfully part). At least with some aspects of your item.

Ahenakew, regardless of his apparent inability to keep his temper in check, was speaking to a reporter. What does a reporter do, but report? In speaking to a reporter, an individual cannot have an expectation of secrecy or privacy - witness the travails of the frogmouthed Ms. Parrish - The expectation is that the reporter will publicly disseminate the content of your exchange. In making this assumption, that the person you are speaking to will do his or her job, a public figure has to show some degree of restraint, even when in anger. A difficult task, to be sure, but it's part and parcel of public life.

Having said that, however, I think the 'measure' of harm done has been disproportionately represented. The speech, while indeed crossing the line into totally unwise territory, was not an incitement, it was the expression of an opinion, no matter how odious. The shouting of 'Fire' in a theatre cannot possibly be interpreted as an opinion, but an act which can only arise from two premises: either there is an actual fire, or there is a degree of malice on the part of the shouter.

While sympathetic to the Jewish community, which has endured centuries of persecution, I think the punitive reaction is out of proportion. Ahenakew has ruined his career and his life, and will be disgraced forever.

In the end, Ahenakew created this situation entirely on his own - he said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and the Government has every right to try him as a result. On the basis of intent to harm, I think the case is weak, but I do think there was the potential to influence others due to his position at the time. If anything, public figures need to be especially careful, since their words will be read and scrutinized no matter what they say.

In reality, my position is not far from your own, but I wanted to get my two cents in regardless. No apologies necessary - the intelligent can always disagree...inteligently.

I am a little reluctant to weigh in on this one, as I find I usually paint myself straight into a corner. I don't know how glad I am that Ahenakew is getting a new trial, but, legally, I guess he deserves one.

That his comments were stupid, assinine and even hateful is undeniable. The fact that they were said to a reporter makes him doubly stupid. But, I guess he falls short of incitement because he doesn't actually encourage someone to "wipe out the disease".

I agree with Kev... the law has to be very precisely interpretted in such cases. Any and all attempts at censorship have to be very carefully considered. It is a very slippery slope to start down, and it doesn't take much for it to get out of hand. The danger is that it ends up in the creation of "thoughtcrime laws", as Flash hints, that restrict the freedom of opinion that we all enjoy.

The problem with living in a democratic society that espouses freedom of speech is that everyone gets to have their say: even the idiots who have nothing better to do than spout dumb or offensive shit; and even if you, or I, or anyone doesn't agree with them. That doesn't mean one has to listen to them, or acknowledge them, but they do have a right to their opinion, however odious. As the old saying goes "Opinions are like assholes - everybody has one" And some people giving voice to their opinions will invariably be assholes.

I am viscerally opposed to censorship. This does NOT mean that I am pro-hate speech or pro-porn or anything else equally as nasty. Nor does it mean I support what Ahenakew, or any other loud-mouthed jackass squawks when he/ she gets their knickers in a twist. Just because one has a LEGAL right to express certain things doesn't mean one shouldn't be MORALLY obligated to keep one's damn mouth shut. Especially when one is talking to someone who's job it is to report what is being said.

I don't agree with what Ahenakew said, but I have to allow that he deserves another turn in front of the J. of P. under the precepts of the laws - as they stand.

"I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." ~Voltaire

Hey guys,
Thanks for the thoughts. I've actually just put up another post on the topic if you're interested. It's here. In it I look at the legal aspects of the law as it might apply to this case.

As Flash suggests above, I think my position is closer to you guys (SaskBoy and Flash) than it is distant. I am not exactly sure how the ISP case applies here, but I'm not familiar with the case. SaskBoy, would this mean that blogger is legally liable for all of the stuff that gets posted on BlogSpot? I hope they have good lawyers.

It looks like I agree with graven's comments in many ways (shock!) that exactly this kind of case and these kinds of laws provide tipping points for a society - fall one way and you effectively legislate all speech and fall the other and you have neo-nazi groups setting up kiosks in the mall.

That is why intent is so important in these kinds of things. The question we should be asking is "did Ahenakew intend to spread hatred against Jews". I do not agree with his statements, which I believe come from an underlying racism, but I think that if the laws are not fine enough to differentiate stupid comments like this from real crimes, then the laws have to be rewritten.

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