The right call; Viewpoint: Halifax Chronicle Herald

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Date: Nov. 12, 2010
Publisher: Toronto Star Newspapers Limited
Document Type: Brief article
Length: 398 words

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There are many ways in which Justin Rehberg could have dealt with Michelle Lyon, a distant cousin whom he suspected of spreading gossip about him.

But he chose to plant a burning cross with a dangling noose on her lawn in the middle of the night. This would never have occurred to him if Lyon's partner, Shayne Howe, had not been black. Not only did Rehberg criminalize his revenge, he "racialized" it.

Rehberg, who had earlier pleaded guilty to criminal harassment, was also found guilty of inciting hatred late last week. The Avondale, N.S., man is the first person in Canada convicted of a hate crime for burning a cross, KKK-style. (His brother Nathan is now on trial on similar charges stemming from the same incident.)

Did Provincial Court Judge Claudine MacDonald create the right precedent? We believe so, even though the matter is not as clear-cut as it seems. Under Canadian law, a public "statement" of this kind can be deemed illegal if it is "likely to lead to further breaches of the peace."

How one goes about determining that is, of course, a good question. The defence argued that while the cross-burning was "nasty, crude and contemptible," there was no evidence it fanned racial hatred in the community. In fact, the opposite happened: Hants County residents publicly rallied against racism.

But that only goes so far. After burning a cross on an inter-racial couple's lawn - an inflammatory gesture in and of itself - then shouting out a racially charged death threat, how can you argue with a straight face that your blatant expression of racial hatred was not an invitation to others?

Furthermore, in the age of communications, ramifications of a cross-burning won't stay on a front lawn in Nova Scotia. They will go around the world and might expose the victims, or members of their identifiable group, to further threats from the lunatic fringe. Similarly, spray-painting a swastika, as opposed to a sad face, on a synagogue is a deliberately provocative act that goes beyond mere vandalism. It is meant to attract negative publicity and, yes, to lead to further breaches of the public peace.

The fact is, Rehberg did not egg his cousin's car (which we are not advocating and which would not be news). He egged on racial hatred. If cross-burning isn't incitement, what is?

2010 The Hamilton Spectator. All rights reserved.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A241933022