The background to the case concerned four documents: two flyers, one called "Keep Homosexuality out of Saskatoon's Public Schools!" and "Sodomites in our Public Schools"; and two flyers which were the reprint of a classifed ad with handwritten comments added.
Under the Saskatchewan Human Rights code, it is illegal to circulate publications which "expose a person to hatred and ridicule" on a protected ground - here, sexual orientation.
So the big question for the court was: where does prohibited hate speech end, and where does freedom of speech begin?
The Supreme Court of Canada analyzed what a publication must be like in order to contravene the hate speech provisions. It said that there must be three main elements. First, the person judging whether the publication contains hate speech must do so from an 'objective' point of view, asking themselves whether a 'reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances, would view the expression as exposing the protected group to hatred'. (In other words, you cannot only ask queers what they think about that question). Second, it is only hateful and contrary to the protections in Saskatchewan's human rights legislation if it is really hateful...in the sense captured by the words 'detestation' and 'vilification'. It's not hate speech just because it is repugnant or offensive. And finally, the decision maker must look to see what the effect of the hate speech is: is the probably effect that it will expose the targeted person or group to hatred by others?
The complainants had argued that the section of the human rights law under which they had been convicted was a breach of their constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. True, said the Supreme Court of Canada: but, your right to freedom of speech has to be balanced against the right to be free from speech which is likely to cause hatred; and in this case, most of the human rights law is appropriate and impairs one's freedom of speech minimally.
Part of the Saskatchewan human rights legislation outlawed speech which "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of" a person. That part of the law, said the Supreme Court of Canada, is too broad. And they struck it down.
This case has been long-awaited. Queers have been holding our breath to see whether the Supreme Court of Canada would uphold our right to be free from malicious homophobic speech, or whether once again our rights would be seen as subordinate to someone else's rights to free speech, or freedom of religion.