As opposed to writing about a recent decision, or framing an opinion on something in the news, I find that looking back is sometimes just as important as looking forward. It reminds us of how far legal issues have come, but also that things can revert. So let us have a look at a ground breaking event that occurred on today’s date.
In 1789 during the French Revolution, the new National Assembly proclaimed freedom of speech for all on today’s date. The country’s political system went from absolute monarchy to rule by the people, and back to dictatorship in only the briefest span of time, but once declarations like this were made in one of the great powers, the proverbial genie was out of the bottle. Freedom of speech is now a universal hallmark legal right of democratic countries often enshrined in constitutions. The corollary to freedom of speech legislation in Canada are the Human Rights Tribunals and hate speech legislation where arguably our society has placed limits on what is reasonable communication between people, and what can be depicted. There has been a more recent increase in litigants seeking restitution through HRT as opposed to civil court given the significantly reduced costs, time and risk. Under the Human Rights Act damages used to be capped at $40,000, but that has been lifted. More recent six figure awards through such tribunals illustrate that communication between people can lead to serious consequences when unwanted, or when harm is caused. The question remains very live over two centuries later in Canada whether freedom of speech is also freedom to offend, and how to judge and determine when that threshold is breached and causes damages.