Late in the afternoon near the end of February, Bill Whatcott sat at his office in the quiet city of Weyburn, Sask. He was having a bad day. That morning, Canada’s top court ruled that two anti-gay flyers he distributed in Saskatoon years earlier violated Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Code and met the legal definition of hate speech.
“The idea of criminalizing the disagreement with homosexuality and labelling it ‘hate speech’ is a big concern for me,” Whatcott said Feb. 27 from the sparse farming community of about 10,000 residents in the southeast corner of the province.
“It takes away the right to say what is true. It certainly is an infringement on the Judeo-Christian worldview. There certainly is a civil liberties element to this…. I feel that I can’t do everything. I can’t deal with every issue. But I can focus on this and I believe this is what God called me to focus on.”
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Whatcott — a born-again Christian from Ontario who has spent a little over a decade on the Prairies preaching a radical social-conservative doctrine — wasn’t about to bow out.
Just one week later, he was on campus at the University of Saskatchewan passing out his latest flyer, “Sodomites and the Supreme Court of Canada.” After making his way through the tunnel and Arts Building handing out pamphlets, Whatcott entered the law school.
I am not so much mad at homosexuals. It’s the silencing of speech, the loss of religious freedom and the freedom of my fellow Christians. That is why I am standing here.
Matt Straw, a law student, was studying in a private student office when Whatcott strolled by. He said Whatcott pushed open the door to the office without knocking and handed him a flyer.
“I followed him out to the hallway as he was going into the lounge and said, ‘You’re not welcome here. You need to leave,’ and I gave him back the paper,” Straw said.
After a brief spat over the legality of Whatcott’s actions, Straw crumpled a handful of flyers as Whatcott snapped an unexpected photograph, which he later posted to his website.
“He said I swore and insulted him but that never actually happened,” Straw said. “I was definitely telling him to leave, and I was not being particularly friendly, but I did not swear or insult him at any time.”
Following the incident with Straw, Whatcott drew the ire of at least two more law students, and took photos of them as well. In a second image posted to Whatcott’s website that day, a female student in the law building is giving the camera the middle finger while a male student stands in foreground. Whatcott claims the man called him a “butt fucker” and “cock sucker.”
Brent Penner, director of Campus Safety, said officers received “a few calls from people on campus” concerned with Whatcott’s activity before asking him not to distribute flyers inside classrooms and office buildings.
In light of the Supreme Court ruling, Penner and senior university administrators have met to formalize an “appropriate” response to the far-right Christian activist’s intermittent presence on campus.
On the day of Whatcott’s most recent visit, President Ilene Busch-Vishniac sent out a campuswide email titled, “A Safe, Positive and Inclusive Campus.”
“We will not tolerate discriminatory or harassing behaviour or materials in our work and learning environments,” Busch-Vishniac wrote.
“We value diversity and will defend it — diversity of political views, religious beliefs, sexual identities, ethnic backgrounds, and racial identities included.”
Her message went on to praise the Supreme Court’s decision in recognizing “that hate speech is not protected by freedom of expression” and lists nine separate initiatives or actions the university has undertaken in recent years that show “high standards for a positive, inclusive and safe university.”
After being asked to move outside by Campus Safety, Whatcott and four older supporters stood on the corner of Bottomley Avenue and College Drive holding graphic posters of aborted fetuses and signs that read, “abortion: execution of innocent babies,” and, “abortion is murder.”
“I handed out about 100 pamphlets on campus and about another 150 in the [surrounding] neighbourhood,” Whatcott said while demonstrating near the busy intersection.
“Most students took my flyers without comment; some said thank you, but not necessarily out of support.”
Whatcott was halfway through a four-day barrage of Saskatchewan and Alberta universities, protesting the Supreme Court ruling against him. He visited the University of Regina the day earlier, where he was chased and yelled at by two women who tried to steal his flyers.
In response to Busch-Vishniac’s email about the university’s no-tolerance policy for hate speech, Whatcott said administrators would be unable to silence him. He had his lawyer on hand in case he was arrested or detained.
After being fined by the U of R in 2001 for placing anti-abortion flyers on car windshields, Whatcott had the penalty overturned in an appeal. A few years later Whatcott filed a defamation lawsuit against the university and eventually settled.
“Really, if the university is trying to get rid of hatred they might need to clean up some of their more left-wing students,” he said, snarkily referring to the law student who confronted him earlier that day.
“As long as universities are taking public funds and are shaping public policy, they can’t hide behind [the idea that a university is] ‘private property’ the way a supermarket can.”
Across the street, a group of six pro-choice supporters began holding posters along College Drive to counter Whatcott’s display.
“We are out in support of the Supreme Court decision against his hate speech,” said Amy Stefanson, a Saskatoon elementary school teacher and U of S alum. “Just to let him know that the spreading of hate is not tolerated in our city, on our campus, in our province, anywhere.”
Although Whatcott feels strongly about the immorality of homosexuality and abortions, he says that’s not why he’s on campus.
“I am not so much mad at homosexuals,” he said, claiming to have gay friends who choose to live chaste lives. “It’s the silencing of speech, the loss of religious freedom and the freedom of my fellow Christians. That is why I am standing here.”
As Whatcott and his supporters began packing up toward the end of the afternoon, an unknown male student spit in his face. Whatcott retaliated, hitting the student in the face.
“Sorry about that, guys,” Whatcott said to his supporters while scurrying across College Drive immediately after the incident. “But spitting in my face really gets me mad. I’ve never done that to them.”
The two single-page flyers that are at the heart of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling decry the teaching of homosexuality in Saskatoon’s public schools.
Titled “Keep Homosexuality out of Saskatoon’s Public Schools!” and “Sodomites in our Public Schools,” the flyers repeatedly quote religious scripture and refer to gay people as “sodomites.”
“The Church of Jesus Christ is blessed with many ex-sodomites and other types of sex addicts who have been able to break free of their sexual bondage and develop wholesome and healthy relationships,” one pamphlet reads.
“Our children will pay the price in disease, death, abuse and ultimately eternal judgment if we do not say no to the sodomite desire to socialize your children into accepting something that is clearly wrong.”
The Supreme Court, after first hearing the case in 2011 and deliberating for more than a year, ruled in a rare, unanimous decision to uphold Saskatchewan’s human rights law and deem Whatcott’s two anti-gay flyers hate speech.
The judgment, delivered by Supreme Court Justice Marshall Rothstein, found the two flyers not only offensive and inflammatory but also possibly “exposing homosexuals to detestation and vilification.”
“A prohibition of hate speech will not eliminate the emotion of hatred from the human experience,” Rothstein wrote.
“Employed in the context of human rights legislation, these prohibitions aim to eliminate the most extreme type of expression that has the potential to incite or inspire discriminatory treatment against protected groups on the basis of a prohibited ground.”
The case polarized the country — and the media — over the argument of censorship. To some, the judgment bolsters the rights of vulnerable groups, while to others, the decision is a blow to the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.
Nevertheless, the unanimous decision sets a strong new precedent for Canada’s legal approach in dealing with hate speech.
Ken Norman is a law professor at the U of S and former chief commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commision. As chief commissioner from 1978 to 1982, he oversaw the drafting of the province’s human rights code, which Whatcott violated.
He firmly backs the high court’s decision and says it draws a clear distinction between Canada’s freedom of expression laws and those in America, where speech must invoke a clear and present danger to be deemed hateful.
“It shows we are committed in this country to diversity,” Norman said.
“That commitment means that those who are a minority and are marginalized deserve some protection by the state when they are being essentially silenced by language that shows that they are despised or pseudo-human.”
Essentially, the Supreme Court has stated that freedom of speech applies up to the point that it constitutes an effort to dehumanize a specific group — something Whatcott did in his flyers by suggesting gay people were disease-bearing predators and less than human, Norman said.
“The crucial step, it seems to me, is that freedom of expression is protected until you get to point of starting what amounts to propaganda of dehumanization.”
The Supreme Court exonerated the social-conservative activist for two additional flyers that were also passed out around the same time. Both were simply photocopies of classified advertisements in which men were seeking sexual relations with other men, and both included brief handwritten introductions.
For the two flyers that were deemed hate speech, Whatcott has been ordered to pay a total of $7,500 to two individuals who were offended back in 2001. They are the two people who originally brought the complaints forward to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. He also owes thousands of dollars in court fees to his lawyer.
“I’m on the hook for tens of thousands,” Whatcott said. “That’s so big that it will never ever get collected.”
If Whatcott continues to have human rights complaints lodged against him, and refuses to pay his fines, there’s a chance he’s ordered to serve jail time.
“Yeah, that’s possible,” he said. “I’m not looking forward to that.”
- In Whatcott’s relentless pursuit for media attention, he once appeared on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and was mocked as a closeted gay man for hosting a Heterosexual Family Pride Parade.
- Whatcott has repeatedly run for political office, losing mayoral races in both Regina and Edmonton.
- As a young man, Whatcott lived on the streets and would sometimes have sex with men to support his drug addiction — a period in his life he now deeply regrets. He’s been jailed “20 to 30” times throughout his life, he says. “Heck in jail I find that some of the inmates produce more common sense than some people who sit in social science classes at university for too long.”
- His favourite drop-spot for the flyers are university campuses, particularly in and around the area of the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina, where he claims to have passed out hundreds of thousands.
Update 13/03/2013 4:20 p.m.: The second male law student to engage with Whatcott (who wished to remain anonymous) alleges he did not call Whatcott a “butt fucker” or “cock sucker.” He did not reveal what he actually said.
Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf