When fear becomes the aftermath of free speech, then the right is lost: A just sentence: It would be easy to create martyrdom for Mark Harding
By Faisal Kutty – Convicted last June of three counts of inciting hatred toward Muslims, Mark Harding was sentenced yesterday to a three-month conditional sentence, to be served outside prison, during which he has to perform 240 hours of community service. He is also prohibited from publishing or distributing material of any kind during his sentence. And he will be on probation for two years, during which he cannot publish material “similar” to the kind that landed him in court.
Harding’s conviction last summer of “willfully promoting hatred toward an identifiable group” intensified the debate between defenders of free expression and anti-hate activists. The question now is, does the punishment fit the crime?
A cabinetmaker from Meaford, Ont., Harding published and distributed pamphlets in Toronto through his organization, the Christian Standard. According to Detective Dino Doria, who lead the investigation, the Standard, which describes itself as a “self-supporting group of Christian soldiers serving God and the Lord Jesus Christ in Canada and around the world,” was a one-man show.
The Standard’s recorded phone message told callers that Muhammad was a false prophet, and that the Qur’an was the work of the devil. In a pamphlet entitled “Are all the Muslims living in Canada today TERRORISTS [sic],” Harding suggested that Muslims “sound peaceful and try to act peaceful, but underneath their false sheep’s clothing are raging wolves, seeking whom they may devour, and Toronto is definitely on their hit list.”
Harding’s defenders contended that he was only expressing his views and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. They deny that he was spreading hate. Michael Coren wrote in the Financial Post that a civil society “rests on the uninhibited expression of adult ideas concerning mature and sensitive subjects, even if some people are offended by such discourse.”
I agree. Nobody should oppose Harding’s right to believe in and to preach his belief in the exclusive truth of Christianity and the falsehood of Islam, just as a Muslim must have the right to advocate belief in the exclusive truth of Islam.
But Harding went beyond this. He tried to create fear of Muslims. He was not debating theology or ideology. If Harding’s stereotyping and calls to be wary of Muslims were not hatemongering, then what is? Bernie Farber, director of community relations for the Canadian Jewish Congress, said that Harding’s material “could have been a tinderbox. It could lead to violence.” Many would agree.
A strong message must be sent to propagators of hate. This is especially so given the fact that hate-motivated crimes reported to police in Toronto grew by 19% in the first half of 1998, according to the interim semi-annual report released last summer by the Toronto Hate Crimes Unit. Ninety-two hate crimes were reported in the first six months of 1998, as opposed to 77 the year before. (The unit’s annual report is set to be published this month.)
Will Harding’s case have a chilling effect on debate? George Batarseh, whose group, the Arabic Pentecostal Church in Waterloo, supported Harding, said that “the arrest of Mark Harding marked the day that freedom died in Canada.” Nonsense. The slippery-slope argument is unconvincing. Opponents of the hate-promotion law overlook the fact that before a charge can be laid, the consent of the attorney-general must be obtained. Not an easy task. In the case at hand, the police received numerous complaints from Muslims and non-Muslims, but nothing could be done until Charles Harnick, Ontario’s Attorney-General, approved the charges. The section also provides for defences such as the truth of the statement and good faith argument. Moreover, as pointed out by the Supreme Court, the intent component required for a conviction is quite onerous.
At trial presided over by Justice Sidney Linden, Harding testified that he was a sincere Christian trying to present the gospel to Muslims, and apologized for offending Muslims and labelling them all as terrorists. His apology is hard to accept, given that even after his trial he was hosting a radio segment for the “Voice of Christian Martyrs,” during which he continued his diatribes against Muslims. During one segment, he had a guest from the Philippines who warned Canadians to be wary of Muslims because in the Philippines they are known to cut open pregnant Christian women and roast alive Christian youth.
Determining a sentence to fit the crime is a difficult task. The maximum sentence for the offence was two years in jail. Creativity was in order. Last year, for instance, Justice Mary Hogan of the Ontario court ordered counselling from the Canadian Jewish Congress for a man convicted of a hate-motivated crime. Harding has already spent two days in prison, suffered two heart attacks and has been dragged through the courts for a year and a half.
Given this fact, the goals of sentencing — specific deterrence, general deterrence, punishment, rehabilitation and restitution — are satisfied by yesterday’s sentence. The interests of society were best served by not imposing a jail sentence. Harding should not be made into a martyr for the defenders of irresponsible free speech and/or hatemongers.
Note: First Published Tuesday, January 12, 1999 in The National Post
Byline: Faisal Kutty
Source: National Post
Tags: Hate Speech
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