Sarah Leamon: Ticketing racism is no panacea for hate


British Columbia has a hate-speech problem.

More and more often, seemingly ordinary citizens are being caught on-camera expressing harmful racist and prejudicial views in places like parking lots, restaurants, and shopping centers. It’s a disturbing trend, and something needs to be done about it.

This has caused the provincial government to look into options aimed at curbing such distasteful public displays in the future.

Ravi Kahlon, the MLA from Delta North, is one such politician. He has written to Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, asking that the province take action against “racist and hateful behaviour".

One of the options that Kahlon has suggested is rather unusual. It is to pass new laws, creating provincial noncriminal sanctions for those who express racist or intolerant sentiments in public places. Under a scheme like this, a ticket would be issued to the offender, and a monetary fine would be payable to the province. It would be like a traffic ticket, but for discriminatory hate speech instead of poor driving behavior.

If this seems like a good measure to you, though, you may want to think twice.

Ticketing hate speech creates a slippery slope, which may ultimately work backward from its very objective by fostering more extremist sentiments while simultaneously delegitimizing the seriousness of this type of conduct. 

The first problem will come down to what will constitute a ticketable offence and which ideological yardstick we are using. 

Governing the legality of speech is no simple feat, and the potential for censorship is real. 

By prohibiting free expression under threat of official punishment, we are effectively prohibiting the free exchange of ideas and the opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse—even if that discourse is uncomfortable or offensive at times.

It is an undeniable fact that when people express ideas—even bad ideas—a dialogue occurs. As a person receives community feedback, additional information and other points of view, a space can be carved out for change. And even in situations where no immediate change occurs, there is potential for healing through transparency, openness, and expression.    

Moreover, if people cannot speak freely, they may become more inflexible and extreme. 

The fear of punishment may cause those with extremist opinions to express them only in similar company or not at all. This could create ideological echo-chambers—breeding grounds of misinformation and hate. Their own opinions will only be reflected back to them, reinforcing them without challenge or concern. 

It will push the hate further underground, making it all the more difficult to uproot. Although potentially uncomfortable, there is an unassailable benefit to openness.