The killings at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 15 has once again brought the issue of free speech front and center. Should there be limits to what is off-limits? Canadian media coverage in the days since the incident seems to largely portray a collective sentiment (with a few exceptions) in overwhelming support of free speech, no matter how offensive it may be to some. Canadian politicians vehemently condemned the killings and a number of media outlets showed the cartoons on TV and in print. However, this response does seem a little ironic since blasphemy is still technically illegal in Canada.
Section 296 of the Criminal Code of Canada
Per Section 296 of the Criminal Code of Canada, publishing blasphemous libel is an indictable offence and if convicted you can go to prison for up to two years. Anyone accused is permitted to defend himself or herself of the charge provided they use “decent language.”
- (1) Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.
Definition of Blasphemy
There is a good chance many Canadians don’t know what blasphemy means and have no idea blasphemous libel is a criminal offense in their country. For those who would like a little clarity on the definition, it is “the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.” These days it is hard to miss all the blasphemy out there; from TV shows, movies, newspapers to video games, it is on full display.
The language outlawing blasphemy was first included in the Canadian Criminal Code in 1892. There have been a handful of times in the last century when Canadians have been accused of blasphemous libel.
- 1927: Eugene Starry, a Toronto atheist, was sent to jail for 60 days after a being accused of insulting Christianity. He was ultimately deported to England where he had been born.
- 1977: A poet who wrote about a gay Jesus Christ was charged, but not convicted.
- 1980: Owners of a theater in Sault Ste. Marie were accused, but not convicted, after screening Life of Brian (a Monty Python movie), which is a spoof on Christ. An Anglican vicar who had seen the film had complained to local authorities.
The Pope Weighs In
Pope Francis unequivocally condemned the Paris attacks and said there was no way to justify them in God’s name. He said free speech was a fundamental right and it is the duty of people to speak their mind for the common good. However, the Pope also stated there are limits and a reaction of some kind when people make fun of the religious beliefs of others is not unexpected.
Other Blasphemy Laws
There are many countries that still have blasphemy laws and, in some cases, punishment for the crime is death. It is not particularly surprising that Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia have them, but it is that Ireland and Australia do as well. In 2008, the United Kingdom repealed its blasphemy law. In the United States, there are no federal blasphemy laws since they would violate the U.S. Constitution.
It seems more than strange in this day and age that a progressive western country like Canada would still have a blasphemy law, even if it has fallen out of use. Yet, it’s still there.