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Canada's top court on Wednesday upheld a ban on hate speech contested by a Christian anti-gay activist, but struck down a section of the law also prohibiting belittling or ridiculing others.
The Supreme Court said in its decision that the hate speech ban "is a reasonable limit on freedom of religion and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
"The benefits of the suppression of hate speech and its harmful effects outweigh the detrimental effect of restricting expression which, by its nature, does little to promote the values underlying freedom of expression," it said.
However the court also found that speech which "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of (a person or group) does not rise to the level of ardent and extreme feelings constituting hatred."
The case involved a self-described former drug-addict, petty criminal and homosexual-turned-Christian anti-gay activist Bill Whatcott, who was found guilty by a human rights tribunal of promoting hatred.
Whatcott had been ordered by the commission to pay Can$17,500 (US$17,000) to four people who complained that flyers he distributed in Saskatchewan province "promoted hatred against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation."
He was also asked to stop distributing the pamphlets.
Two of the pamphlets blasted proposals to include information on homosexuality in school curriculums, calling it "filth and propaganda" amounting to "celebrating buggery."
The other two were simply reprints of a page of classified advertisements with handwritten comments in the margins criticizing a local gay magazine for allowing ads for "men seeking boys."
Dozens of civil liberties and religious groups argued before the Supreme Court on the case's implications for freedom of speech and religion.
The high court upheld the commission's ruling in regards to the first two flyers, concluding that passages contained in them "combine many of the hallmarks of hatred" identified in case law.
They portray gays and lesbians "as a menace that threatens the safety and well-being of others, makes reference to respected sources in an effort to lend credibility to the negative generalizations, and uses vilifying and derogatory representations to create a tone of hatred."
The flyers also expressly called for anti-gay discrimination.
Whatcott's conviction for distributing the second pair of flyers, however, was set aside.
The high court noted that after its ruling the hate speech act "will not capture all harmful expression" but will nab the worst of it, and that which has the potential to cause harm.