Archive for the ‘ Theocracy Watch ’ Category

Could Canada’s Anti-Sex Work Bill C-36 Also Stifle LGBT Speech?

Slightly over a week ago, Canada introduced legislation to replace the anti-prostitution laws that had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Conservative government has been trying to race Bill C-36 through both the House and the Senate simultaneously, at breakneck speed.  But the text of the bill has raised questions about its constitutionality.  Sex workers, mainstream media and even many Nordic model proponents and abolitionists agree that it places sex workers in even greater danger than the previous laws did.

But is there also a poison pill within the legislation that could be used to stifle LGBT and sex-positive speech?

Firstly, here is what the dubiously-named “Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” does:

  • It re-criminalizes communicating for the purpose of commercial sex.  While there is said to be an exemption for the sex worker themselves, that exemption only applies if the communication is not in a public place and/or not “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” (a minor doesn’t actually have to be present), and not in the presence of another sex worker under the age of 18 (one controversy has arisen because underage sex workers can be charged if they work together for safety).  The law had been struck down previously because it put sex workers in unsafe situations by limiting their ability to screen clients, and negotiate what they were willing and unwilling to do.
  • It re-criminalizes the “common bawdy-house,” defined as a place “for the practice of acts of indecency, a place that is kept or occupied or resorted to by one or more persons.” This criminalizes massage parlours and strip clubs, if commercial sex occurs on their premises, and also prevents sex workers from having their own (or collective) space away from home to meet with clients.  The bawdy-house law had been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working collectively indoors.
  • It re-criminalizes “living off the avails…” (as “receiving a material benefit that derives” from the sale of sex). It does provide an exemption (subject to interpretation) for some roommates, spouses and children who live with sex workers, provided that nothing can be construed as an exploitative situation and no drugs are provided to the sex worker.  This also criminalizes escort agencies, and it is unclear how liable referrers, drivers, bodyguards, associates and other business partners could be.  This had also been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working together or making business arrangements that improve their safety and circumstances.
  • It now officially criminalizes the purchase of sex.  This is new (previously, it had been legal but associated activities were illegal), and it’s because of this that people are claiming the law is based on the Nordic model of prostitution laws, which aim to end demand while supposedly not targeting sex workers themselves — but Canada’s law goes very clearly beyond that point in several ways.  While many are claiming that this law will inevitably be struck down as unconstitutional, the Harper government’s gambit strategy is to criminalize sex work, so that it is no longer legally relevant whether the laws make it unsafe.
  • Something else that is entirely new is that the law criminalizes advertising “sexual services.”  Newspapers and websites are legally liable if commercial sex advertisements are found within their publications, and consequences can include fines or imprisonment — again with an exemption for the sex workers themselves, provided it is not in a public place and/or “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present….” Weirdly, it appears that the Internet may be defined as a place where persons under the age of 18 can be reasonably expected to be present, for the purposes of this bill.

“Sexual services” is not defined, and I have asked elsewhere if this term could eventually be stretched in such a way that it ultimately bans porn.  The bill contains extensive search and seizure powers that at the very least provides all the legal teeth that such a ban would need.  Others have also asked if the vague nature of this term could be used to target sexual health services, sex-positive counseling, sex toys and more.

If the phrase “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” is reminiscent of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law, that may be by design — Canada’s criminalization of sex work owes more to Russia’s anti-prostitution laws than to the Nordic model.

(If anyone is interested in background of these specifics, I have posts at Rabble.ca about what the bill explicitly does, and how the bill makes a seriously flawed and damaging conflation between sex work and human trafficking.)

The Poison Pill

The new criminalization of “sexual service” advertising, however, is especially concerning.  Given the way that print and online publications are to be held liable for commercial sex advertising, there are serious implications for Canadians’ freedom of speech.  Beyond the obvious loss of advertising revenues that an LGBT publication might endure, there could also be wider-spread censorship if that legal liability also extends to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for any such advertisements that could be found on their networks.

The question is not as absurd as it sounds.  It was only last July that Conservative MP Joy Smith loudly cheered Britain’s new law which required ISPs to institute a content filtering system requiring Britons to opt in if they want to be able to access anything deemed to be obscene or pornographic.  At the time, she had promised to flag this for the party to make a top priority, she said she was absolutely certain that the Prime Minister would be interested in taking action, and then nothing else has ever been said publicly about it.  Meanwhile, Joy Smith has been the Harper Conservatives’ most vocal proponent of Bill C-36, and given many comments by her Conservative Party colleagues, it would seem that she also had a hand in drafting the bill and / or lobbying for it among Members of Parliament.  And the only groups that have been very happy with Bill C-36 have been a number of religious groups, who seem to be the only consultants that were listened to.

Filters have caused minor controversies in Canada before, such as when Tim Hortons had to apologize for blocking DailyXtra from WiFi users.  However, they’ve not improved very much, over time, and have never been applied in a global fashion.

If ISPs are legally liable for (or could be threatened with legal liability for) advertisements of sexual services found on their networks under the terms of C-36, then out of necessity and self-preservation, ISPs would need to institute a content filtering system, nationwide.  Unlike Britain’s, there may not be an opt-in alternative.  This would be doubly reinforced if pornography were deemed a “sexual service” (i.e. by acting as an intermediary) at some point.

Where this becomes especially a concern for free speech is that content filters are incredibly arbitrary, and any filter system designed to effectively intercept commercial sex advertising would inevitably be overly broad.

The result of the filters implemented in Britain has been a deliberately quiet reduction in access to a great many things:

“The filters block a wide variety of content, from hardcore porn to extremist political sites… those “porn blockers” have already proven to be ineffective, blocking plenty of harmless sites and failing to tell the difference between sex education forums and porn. In one case, a domestic abuse helpline was blocked as inappropriate material, while many actual porn sites are still accessible through the filters.”

Back in January, The Guardian‘s Laurie Penny asserted that blocking more than porn was both the intent and the inevitable consequence of the government’s content filtering initiative.  Casualties of the filter system had included “helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services.”  The New Statesman reported in December that one ISP advertised that its filters would block gay and lesbian content:

“BT have since reworded this description to remove the ‘gay and lesbian’ reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed “third party supplier” it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description.”

What is and isn’t allowed still can’t be determined except through trial and error.  The Cameron government had to draw up a whitelist to force-allow sites that have been noticed to have inadvertently run afoul of the censor.  But the scope of the filters has grown since its initial introduction to also include discussions deemed politically radical — an addition stated to be because of the possibility of the propagation of terrorism.

While a C-36 inspired filter system would operate differently because of what it’s intended to block — advertisements of sexual services, rather than pornography — that doesn’t mean that the filters would be any less clumsy.  While search terms like “escort” would be natural flags for a filter system, ISPs that are worried about legal repercussions would necessarily include a wider array of tags, to try to prevent anyone from getting around the filters.   Given the subjective nature of the term “sexual services,” something that’s open to wide interpretation, this could result in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities. And then there’s the problem of filtering images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them.

Given the avid support that MP Joy Smith has shown to both C-36 and content filtering — as well as the Bill’s obvious pandering to far right groups that have called for a Canadian equivalent to a Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” law — it’s a reasonable question to ask.

Canadians concerned about this possibility can contact their MP (who can be determined through a search on the parl.gc.ca main page), and civilly but clearly ask for assurance that the ban on sexual service advertising in C-36 could not be used in this manner.  They’re also encouraged to find out more about what the bill does, and voice their opposition or their concerns about how this affects sex workers.  They should CC their message to Minister of Justice Peter MacKay, and if their Member of Parliament is a Conservative, they might also want to copy an interested member of the opposition, such as Françoise Boivin (NDP), Sean Casey (Lib.) or Elizabeth May (Greens).  This must be done quickly, however.

Bill C-36 will be voted on at Second Reading on Monday June 16th, after Question Period at 3:00pm.  From there, it could proceed to Third (and final) Reading, or to a committee stage for amendments (although it appears the Conservatives prefer to pass it as soon as possible).

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

What LifeSiteNews’ attack on Pat Robertson says about religious freedom.

Last week, there was some curious notice given to American televangelist Pat Robertson, after he expressed support for transitioning trans people, and their access to sex reassignment surgery.  Less noticed was the backlash from other far-right groups over the same comments.  But it’s worth revisiting, because of what that backlash says about the far right’s battle cry over religious freedom.

It’s very common for far-right ideologues (who I try to distinguish from “Christians,” because they don’t speak for all Christians) to hide behind religious freedom, and cry censorship when they are called out for transphobic and homophobic comments.  It has created a public perception of there being a false dichotomy between LGBT human rights and religious belief / practice.  It also creates a weird conflation between holding people accountable, and “persecution.”

Personally, I’d rather that folks speak freely.  It’s much easier to challenge the content of what is being said, and demonstrate the authentically bigoted attitudes underlying far-right agendas.  We’ll probably never change the minds of the Fred Phelpses of the world, but their words and actions say a lot to society at large.

That’s probably why I keep coming back to LifeSiteNews.

LSN is a Canadian faux-news website under the aegis of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), which is pretty unabashed about wanting to end or restrict abortion (with no exceptions), contraception, hormone therapy, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), feminism, organ donation, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, LGBT relationships of any type, LGBT parenting, cohabitation and divorce, and far more.  LSN has cheered on Russia’s highly punitive and violent legislation against LGBT people (Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be a champion of religious freedom to LSN, of late), and continues to support organizations that foment anti-gay hatred in Africa, despite having been called out for doing so.  LSN has been known to deliberately omit important information, like when the website cheered on new anti-gay legislative proposals in Nigeria, while “forgetting” (despite reminders) that 14 Nigerian states already have the death penalty for LGBT people.  Other coverage will sometimes conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, or make a total ban on LGBT expression and advocacy sound like it’s protecting children from pornography.  But overall, LSN’s agendas are usually fairly nakedly obvious with just a little bit of examination.  So it often provides vivid examples to clearly demonstrate what the ideological far right wants to do.

CLC has also regularly used the LSN blog to attack Catholic organizations that don’t follow exactly the kind of path that CLC believes is proper and Catholic.  LSN has attempted to punitively police the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and was sued when they went after a Quebec priest who LSN portrayed as a “former homosexual prostitute” and a “so-called priest who supports abortion.” Recently, American and international Catholic hospitals, agencies and charities who provide (or support organizations that provide) access to birth control have come under fire.

LSN has even “clarified” the new Pope.  (But to be fair, LSN was not the only ideologue to do so).

Now, LSN is encouraging readers to swamp the Christian Broadcasting Network main switchboard with complaints about Pat Robertson, partly for saying that contraception is an acceptable way to provide assistance to impoverished people in Third World nations (specifically, Robertson showed some racism by referring to “Appalachian ragamuffins”), and partly for expressing support (for at least the third time) for sex reassignment surgery and the trans people who seek it.

LSN’s attempt to police Pat Robertson and American Evangelicals on these issues puts the lie to cries of religious persecution, censorship and infringement on religious freedom.  As the website and its contributing allies continue to play banhammer on Catholics For Choice, the National Catholic ReporterCatholic Relief Services, affirming churches, priests and congregations, and more, it shows no qualms about attempting to censure or silence the religious freedoms of other Catholics and of Protestants as well:

In addition to complaining that CRS was involved in distributing abortifacients and contraceptives, the clergy expressed dismay that the majority of CRS’ employees in the country are not Catholic and that it does its work apart from the local church.

“Maybe CRS’s participation in artificial-contraception-promotion programs is the reason that CRS mainly hires Protestants, who have no objection to family planning,” suggested Fr. Liva, SMM, Pastor at St. Thérèse Parish in Tamatave. “If CRS hired Catholics, some of those Catholics might object more strongly to CRS’s participation in that kind of thing.”

Back in January, LSN’s Managing Director Steve Jalsevac declared that affirmation of LGBT people in Catholic congregations, teachers’ unions, hospitals, universities and schools was something that needed to be dealt with “urgently and forcefully:

When the various Christian churches, not just the Catholics, are largely cleansed of this rejection of authentic Christian morality, then a power of faith will be unleashed that nothing can stop.

In fact, with this attack on Robertson and other insinuations about Evangelicals, LSN now appears to be trying to police who can and can’t be considered Christian.  This is also apparent in the website’s latest posturing over poll results which show that a majority of Catholics and a significant number of born-again Evangelicals still support the availability of abortion in at least some cases (let alone contraception), as well as calls to excommunicate legislators who support abortion access and LGBT human & marriage rights.

Granted, there has long been a hypocrisy in the religious freedom argument, with Evangelicals like Bryan Fischer and Pat Buchanan arguing against allowing religious observances of people of other faiths, like Muslims. But at this point, it should be obvious to all that for the people now attempting to define and drive what qualifies as “Christian,” the only religious freedom that matters is their own.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

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