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Words Can Hurt

A Look at the Law

The Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan (PLEA) is a non-profit corporation that provides the people of Saskatchewan with understandable, useful information and education on our laws and legal system. The following article was prepared by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

Words Can Hurt

John is an Aboriginal man who works in a hospital. His co-workers seem friendly, but he is uncomfortable with their constant, negative comments about Indian people in general.

Are their comments a form of discrimination, or are John's co-workers simply exercising their right to freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is highly valued in a democratic society, and it is protected in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. At the same time, the Code contains some limits on freedom of expression.

First, the Code describes freedom of expression as a right every person shall enjoy, "under the law." The right to freedom of expression has never been absolute, and the words "under the law" refer to all of the legal limitations existing outside the Code, such as laws against libel and slander.

The Code also protects people from verbal harassment or discrimination in public areas of life, such as employment, housing, education, or public services. For example, a supervisor who constantly calls women "airheads" is not treating male and female employees equally. Similarly, John's co-workers at the hospital are creating a work environment that is more negative for Aboriginal employees than for others.

In addition, section 14 of the Code makes it illegal to publish material that exposes people to hatred or tends to deprive them of rights protected in the Code.

There can be a very fine line between hate literature and freedom of expression. For this reason, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission rarely takes complaints under section 14. Nevertheless, this step is sometimes necessary.

Several years ago, for instance, the Commission took a complaint against a store selling stickers with caricatures of people of African, Asian and East Indian origin. Over these drawing was the universal "not allowed" symbol - a circle with a diagonal slash. The sticker conveyed the general message to the public that these groups were unwelcome and should be excluded.

Balancing freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination can be a difficult task, but is very necessary if both rights are to receive the protection of the law.

For more information, contact the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission in Regina at (306) 787-2530 or 1-800-667-8577, in Saskatoon at (306) 933-5952 or 1-800-667-9249, or by e-mail at