The Attack on Human Rights Commissions
October 23, 2009
Saskatchewan Law Review Annual Lecture
Posted by Ron Nurwisah
human rights, chrc
1. In June of 2008 I was asked by the Canadian Human Rights Commission [CHRC] to write a report about the regulation of hate speech on the Internet, focusing specifically on section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Section 13 is the hate speech provision in the Act. It prohibits the repeated communication on the phone system or the internet of any matter “that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination” – such as race, gender and religion.
2. In the report, which was released last Fall, I recommended the repeal of s.13 of the CHRA so that the CHRC and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal would no longer deal with hate speech, and in particular hate speech on the Internet. I argued that hate speech should continue to be prohibited under the Criminal Code. I took the position that state censorship of hate speech should be confined to a narrow category of extreme expression – that which threatens, advocates or justifies violence against the members of an identifiable group, even if the violence advocated is not imminent. In my view, the failure to ban the extreme or radical edge of prejudiced speech carries too many risks, particularly when it circulates within the racist subculture that subsists on the internet. At the same time, less extreme forms of discriminatory expression, although harmful, cannot simply be censored out of public discourse. Any attempt to exclude from public discourse, speech that stereotypes or defames the members of an identifiable group would require extraordinary intervention by the state and would dramatically compromise the public commitment to freedom of expression. Finally, I argued that a narrowly drawn ban on hate speech that focuses on expression that is tied to violence does not fit easily or simply into a human rights law that takes an expansive view of discrimination, emphasizes the effect of the action on the victim rather than the intention or misconduct of the actor and employs a process that is designed to engage the parties and facilitate a non-adjudicative resolution of the "dispute" between them.
3. While, I would be happy to discuss my recommendations during the question period, they are not the focus of this talk. Instead, what I want to do today is to examine the public debate about human rights commissions.
I am sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that there are Internet blogs that post things about the CHRC that are false and malicious. The problem is that these claims have seeped into mainstream discourse – they have been taken up by members of Parliament, they have been adopted in editorials in the National Post and columns in the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s magazine and in a host of other publications, and they have been repeated on radio and television current affairs programming. They have created in the larger public – or a significant element of the public -- a “feeling” that there is a serious problem with human rights commissions, and in particular the Canadian commission, that needs to be addressed.
In the remainder of this talk I would like to do two things:
First, I want to set out some of the claims made about the CHRC and describe how they are misleading or just plain false. The most prominent critic of the Commission is Ezra Levant – but of course there are many others including Mark Steyn.
Second, I want to consider how these deceptive and invented claims have entered mainstream discourse and come to affect public attitudes. This will involve some general observations about the state of public discourse in Canada.
4. There is a serious debate to be had about the regulation of hate speech by HRCs. But the debate is difficult and complex and there are many reasonable positions one can take on the issue. I do not agree with those who argue that the CHRC should be involved in the regulation of Internet hate speech, but I do not doubt their good faith in taking this position.
The most vociferous and indeed the most media-amplified critics of the CHRC are not interested in this debate. It is easier, and it seems more effective, to exaggerate the case – to invent injustices, and engage in personal attacks.
This approach has several related strategic advantages:
(a) first -- the case against the CHRC becomes clear-cut. All complexity is washed away. There are no longer competing interests or trade-offs that need to be addressed;
(b) second -- the attack on hate speech regulation, when based on the corruption and incompetence of the commission, undermines the entire human rights commission process and not just the regulation of hate speech;
(c) third -- the attack on human rights commissions can be made without having to defend unpopular ideological positions. The regulation of hate speech can be attacked without having to rely explicitly on a libertarian free speech position -- the claim that speech should never be subject to limits. And a broader challenge to anti-discrimination law can be made without having to defend the view that the market is a just and efficient mechanism for the distribution of goods that should not be subject to any form of regulation (in other words that the state should not interfere with the right of the property owner to serve whoever she/he chooses even when that choice is based on race or religion);
(d) fourth -- it appears that this style of attack (personal and extreme ) gets attention and is an effective means of self-promotion.
Why this style of attack is effective I will consider later.
5. First I want to look at a few of the more significant claims made by the critics, and repeated or recycled in the main stream media. (The published version of this lecture will address several other claims that for reasons of time I will not address in this talk): (i) The CHRC has a 100% conviction rate for s.13 cases; (ii) The members and staff of the CHRC are incompetent and corrupt. More particularly – they frequently make neo-Nazi postings (iii) The CHRC and other human rights commissions make unreasonable and unfair decisions.
The techniques used by these critics are sadly familiar. They include (a) identifying one or two commission or tribunal decisions that seem unreasonable in their outcome, and presenting them as if they are representative of the larger body of decisions; (b) when describing a particular case, highlighting certain facts or findings and omitting mention of others to give a misleading picture of the case; (c) relying on dubious sources and reporting their claims as if true and uncontested; (d) using terms in a way that is intended to mislead the audience, ie making a claim that with some strain on the language may be ‘true’ but which on an ordinary reading (the reading encouraged by the speaker) is false; (e) making blatantly false factual claims; and finally (f) engaging in personal attacks against those with opposing views, in order to undermine their credibility.
6. The CHRC has a 100% Conviction Rate. I am sure many of you have heard this claim.
Here is how Ezra Levant put it in a National Post op-ed: “The CHRC already has a 100% conviction rate for censorship prosecutions --- no one in 32 years has ever beat the rap. That’s not hard to believe when you learn that truth, fair comment and honest belief are not legal defences in human rights hearings – the commissions operate more like kangaroo courts than real courts that way.” A National Post editorial observed that: “The CHRC, too, has a frighteningly undemocratic 100% conviction rate on hate speech cases.” When Mark Steyn makes the claim he likes also to point out that not even Iran and North Korea have a 100% conviction rate.
This claim is a little like Bill Clinton’s statement : “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”. It is intended to be misread. It is possible, although just barely, to interpret the 100% conviction rate claim as true, but in its ‘true’ meaning it is entirely uninteresting and in no way a criticism of the CHRC.
The ordinary reading of the claim is that the CHRC has found that s.13 has been violated in every complaint it has received. The impression given is that the issue is fully decided by the CHRC, that it both investigates and adjudicates complaints and that once a complaint is made – once a respondent is unwittingly drawn into the process – the outcome, “conviction”, is inevitable. This was the claim made in an editorial; that appeared in the Windsor Star and other Canwest papers: “… the problem is that the CHRC is essentially the investigator, prosecutor and judge of complaints of racism and hate speech”.
To show how this claim is deceptive I need to say a little bit about the CHRC process and the relationship between the CHRC and CHRT.
Under the CHRA an individual or group may file a complaint with the CHRC, if they believe that a section of the Act has been breached. The Commission may also initiate a complaint, although in the case of s.13 it has done so only once several years ago. The Commission is bound to investigate any complaint that falls within its jurisdiction and is not excluded as trivial, frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith.
In the case of a complaint about hate on the Internet, the investigation officer will confirm that the material appeared on the site and will seek to confirm or discover the identity of the individual responsible for the alleged hate speech. The investigation of a complaint must be conducted in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. This requires that the respondent be informed of the complaint made against her or him and given the opportunity to respond to it. The complainant must also be given the opportunity to reply to the respondent’s submissions.
A report is prepared by the investigation officer, which is then submitted to the Commissioners. The Commissioners may refer the complaint to the CHRT for adjudication or they may dismiss the complaint if they conclude that it is unlikely to succeed at adjudication.
The CHRT is an entirely separate and independent body that adjudicates complaints under the CHRA that are referred to it by the CHRC. If the complaint is referred to the CHRT for adjudication , the CHRC may appear in order to represent the “public interest”; however carriage of the case lies with the complainant. The CHRC has appeared in all but one of the s.13 cases that have been decided by the CHRT.
Section 13 complaints represent a very small part of the CHRC’s workload. Between January 2001 and September 2008 the CHRC received 73 section 13 complaints (about 2% of the total number of complaints received by the CHRC). A year ago, when these numbers were compiled, 58 of the 73 complaints received by the CHRC (which includes only those complaints that were not excluded as trivial or vexatious, without any investigation) had been resolved: 32 (about half) were dismissed after investigation by the CHRC and did not go to adjudication; 10 were resolved through mediation at the CHRT prior to adjudication; only 16 were adjudicated. The CHRT found a breach of s. 13 in all 16 cases that it adjudicated – although the adjudicated cases represented less than 1/3 of the complaints that were received and investigated by the CHRC.
Is there any way in which the claim that the CHRC has a 100% conviction rate can be understood as true? It is true that all s. 13 complaints adjudicated by the Tribunal have been upheld. The Tribunal then has a 100% conviction rate. (“Conviction” is not the right term since the standard remedy given by the Tribunal is a cease and desist order, but this is a relatively minor distortion.) It is also true that the CHRC was represented, and argued that s.13 had been breached, in all but one of the Tribunal adjudications. The CHRC has a 100% “conviction” rate as an advocate before the CHRT, but since so few s.13 complaints are sent to the CHRT that is not so remarkable. Ironically the 100% “conviction” rate by the CHRT could be used to support the very different claim that the CHRC is filtering out too many s.13 complaints, preventing some complaints that might have succeeded at adjudication from even being considered by the Tribunal.
There are, of course, real and significant problems with the process that the CHRC is by law required to follow. I have made the point in my report that free speech interests are affected every time an investigation occurs – particularly since the investigation engages the parties and takes 8 to 10 months to conclude. This is a problem because the CHRC is required to investigate a complaint unless it is trivial, vexatious, frivolous or made in bad faith. The CHRC therefore is bound to investigate some complaints that are unlikely to proceed to adjudication.
As well, because s.13 is located in a law that seeks to advance the goal of social equality through education and conciliation, the CHRC may be inclined to err on the side of inclusion when deciding whether a complaint should be rejected prior to investigation on the grounds that it is trivial. Human rights commissions may be reluctant to exclude a complaint prior to investigation on the grounds that it is trivial, because such a finding may be seen as downplaying the genuine feelings of hurt or injury experienced by minority group members and will preclude the possibility of a facilitated resolution of the ‘dispute’.
These problems with the law, however, are obscured by the bogus 100% conviction rate claim.
7. Critics often accuse the Commission of corruption. The term “corruption” is used very loosely by these critics. It is often used interchangeably with incompetence to refer to what the critics regard as the Commission’s unjustified interference with free speech or its failure to respect due process.
However, this general claim of corruption is sometimes bolstered by more specific claims of corrupt behavior. The most significant of these is that commission staff members have made numerous anti-Semitic or racist postings on neo-Nazi or white-supremacist websites.
Ezra Levant tells us that the transcripts from the case of Warman v. Lemire “reveal that the staff of the CHRC’s anti-hate squad, in their bid to entrap alleged hate-mongers, actually have become one of Canada’s largest sources of hate speech”; Elsewhere Levant asserts that “Canada’s largest ‘hate group’ as measured by the number of anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-black, and pro-Nazi comments published on the Internet … [is] none other than the taxpayers’ own Canadian Human Rights Commission”.
Conservative MP Russ Heibert, in an op-ed in the National Post, makes a similar claim : “Recent hearings such as the Marc Lemire case, have revealed that that current CHRC investigator Dean Steacy and former CHRC investigator Richard Warman regularly posted neo-Nazi diatribes under assumed names on white supremacist web-sites.”
But there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that CHRC s. 13 investigator Dean Steacy has made racist postings on any site – including Stormfront. Indeed in Marc Lemire’s submissions to the Tribunal in Warman v. Lemire it was conceded that “There is no evidence he [Steacy] posted any racist material …”.
Even though Levant’s accusations refer to the CHRC, the actual focus of his claims about racist postings is Richard Warman, who has been the complainant in virtually all of the successful s. 13 complaints. Warman was at one time an employee of the Commission (from 2002 to early 2004), but he did not investigate s.13 complaints for the Commission. Levant says that Warman “worked at the CHRC as an anti-hate investigator”. But that is just not true. Warman did, however, initiate complaints, as a private citizen, while he was employed by the CHRC; although most of his complaints were filed after he left the Commission.
Levant, however, attributes all of Warman’s actions and postings to the CHRC. When Levant asserts that “CHRC investigators have admitted under oath to writing on Nazi websites that Jews are ‘scum’, gays are a ‘cancer’ and white police should be loyal to their race, to list just a sample”, he is referring to postings that have been attributed to Warman after he left the employ of the CHRC in March 2004.
I will not here get into the issue of what Warman may or not have posted – although I will say that several of the statements attributed to him are reformulated by Levant and taken out of context. (And as far as I know nothing said in reply to these comments has been the subject of a s.13 complaint). The important point, though, is that none of these postings, however they are described, emanated from the CHRC or its s.13 investigators.
Again Levant’s misleading claims about CHRC corruption fail to address the real problems with the current s. 13 process. In my report I raised questions about the appropriateness of relying on private citizens to initiate and pursue s.13 complaints. There are a variety of reasons why this is problematic, although the main one is simply that it puts too much of a burden on the private complainant. Hate speech is most often directed at a receptive, or at least interested, audience and is only known to the complainant because she or he has looked for it or stumbled across it. Without the initiative of individuals like Warman, section 13 might have no operation at all. The complainant carries responsibility for the complaint throughout the process, at both the investigation and adjudication stages. In addition to the burden of time and money that a complainant must bear, particularly if the complaint proceeds to adjudication before the CHRT, a complainant may be subjected to threats of violence. We should not expect complainants to bear such a burden.
Searching neo-Nazi websites for hate speech and engaging with individuals on those sites to determine their identity involves ethical challenges that should not be dealt with by private citizens.
Hate speech harms the group and the community. It is a public wrong. The state, not private citizens, should be responsible for the enforcement of the law. But Levant’s misleading claims about the CHRC investigators do not address this problem.
8. The Provincial Human Rights Commissions also make Bizarre Decisions:
In his book Shakedown, Levant describes a handful of human rights code cases, dealing with issues other than hate speech, in which a provincial tribunal makes a decision that seems patently unreasonable.
According to Levant the “craziest” of these cases is the judgment of the BC HRT in Datt v. McDonald’s. On the CBC radio’s The Current, Levant said this about the case: “A woman didn’t want to wash her hands and she sued McDonald’s in human rights tribunal and won. She allegedly has this human right not to have to wash her hands at McDonald’s.” On smaller radio programs his claims become even stronger: “One day she said, ‘I don’t like to wash my hands so much’ … Nothing was wrong, she just didn’t want to wash her hands .. There was no name for this mystery illness … [It was decided by the HRT that] “she had the human right not to wash her hands …” In a blog entry on the case Levant informs us that: “[T]he British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled that one of the employees there [at McDonald’s] has a human right not to wash her hands when working in their kitchen”; The Tribunal “invent[ed] a human right for a worker to go to the bathroom and then handle meat without washing her hands in between …”. The case also gets passing mention from columnists such as Rex Murphy in the Globe and Mail, who refers to the trivial “rights” recognized by HRCs “Like the right not to wash one’s hands while working in a fast-food restaurant”. The impression one gets from Levant’s account of the case is of a tribunal that is entirely out of touch with reality, and indifferent to important health and safety concerns.
Of course anyone who combs through the thousands of human rights cases that have been decided over the years, is bound to discover decisions that seem wrong or unfair. This would be the case with any decision-maker, including the courts.
With that said, however, let me tell you what Levant leaves out of his account of this case. Ms. Datt had worked for Macdonald’s for 23 years until she developed severe dermatitis as a consequence of her frequent handwashing. There seemed to be no dispute that frequent handwashing had caused her to suffer severe dermatitis.
The Tribunal decision does not question the importance of McDonald’s hand washing policies. The Tribunal member says: “I accept that the goal of preventing the contamination of food is why McDonald’s established its hand-washing policy. This goal cannot be understated and it accords with common sense in the handling and preparation of food. However, there were duties that Ms. Datt could have performed that did not require her to handle food”.
The problem, said the Tribunal, was that McDonald’s did not seem to have considered in any serious way whether there were other tasks that Ms. Datt might perform that would not involve the handling of food and require hand washing with the same frequency.
The Tribunal concluded: “I am at a loss to understand why McDonald’s did not take more steps to try to accommodate Ms. Datt, a 23-year committed employee. Ms. Datt was not entitled to a ‘perfect’ solution, but she was entitled to a fulsome consideration of her restrictions and how those restrictions intersected with the hand-washing policies and the jobs that were available. Without having done so, neither Ms. Datt nor McDonald’s was in a position to know what the outcome of a return to work, with accommodations, might have been. It may be that, at the end of the day, Ms. Datt could not have been accommodated at McDonald’s because she simply could not meet its hand-washing policies doing any job or combination of jobs, but based on the evidence before me, I find that McDonald’s failed to take all the necessary steps to make this final determination”
You can disagree with the decision – although that may only be possible if you believe that employers have no duty to accommodate employees with disabilities -- but the result is not shocking in the way Levant suggests. If that is among the most egregious injustices that he is able to mine from the thousands of human rights decisions, and it must be remembered that it is not even a decision of the CHRT, then human rights bodies must be doing far better than I might have guessed.
In this and other cases discussed in Shakedown, Levant gives an entirely distorted account of what occurred.
9. The State of Public Discourse
I have, I hope, said enough to make my point. The claims made by Levant and other critics of the CHRC are false or misleading.
Yet their claims are repeated, often uncontradicted, in radio and television interviews. They are parroted by politicians and in newspaper editorials and columns. And, although this is more difficult to gauge, they appear to be taken up by Canadians, who watch or read the mainstream media.
Why does it seem so difficult to have a serious and honest public debate about hate speech regulation?
10. The propaganda campaign against the HRCs fits within the dominant model of contemporary political discourse, which is often referred to as “spin”. Spin, described most generously, involves putting a positive gloss on an event or statement, or describing the actions of one’s opponent in a negative light. More realistically described by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in their book, unSpun:
Spin is a polite word for deception. Spinners mislead by means that range from subtle omissions to outright lies. Spin paints a false picture of reality by bending facts, mischaracterizing the words of others, ignoring or denying crucial evidence, or just “spinning a yarn” – by making things up.
Political ‘spin’ inverts the relationship between fact and opinion, with the former often following the latter. To the political spinner, facts are just supports or props for a position. ‘Facts’ may be selected, massaged, and even invented to advance a larger ‘truth’ or simply the self-interest of the speaker.
“Spin” is political speech in the model of commercial advertising. Commercial advertising has come to dominate public discourse not just in the sense that so much of that discourse is composed of ads – that we see ads everywhere – but also in the way in which these ads have become the general model for public expression – for how political and other public actors convey their views and seek to persuade others. Political speech, in the commercial model, seeks an emotional or visceral response, eschews complexity and nuance, and devalues factual accuracy. The dominance of public discourse by the advertising model has made it increasingly difficult for us to envision political speech that seeks to persuade citizens of the wisdom of a particular policy rather than simply to shape or manipulate the concerns and feelings of political consumers.
11. Why have mainstream media outlets been willing to provide a platform for this spin and to give it credibility? Why have they not corrected or contradicted the false claims of the critics of the CHRC?
There are several reasons for the media’s failing. The most obvious is that media reporters and interviewers have limited time and resources, making it difficult for them to fact-check – to confirm or correct the claims made. And, of course, the more these claims are repeated in the media, the less it seems necessary to check their accuracy.
But there are other more significant factors that seem to support non-critical reporting of these claims.
The first is the desire by most mainstream media outlets, in their role as reporter of news, to appear neutral or balanced in their reporting, particularly on matters of public controversy -- to avoid taking a position (or appearing to take a position) on a public issue.
The second, is the increasing prominence of columnists who engage in advocacy rather than analysis, and who are concerned less with factual accuracy and more with simply provoking a reaction in their readers.
The third, which applies principally to the visual media, is the appeal of simple and dramatic claims, and of conflict, which is visually engaging or entertaining.
11. Let me return to the first of these factors:
In seeking to avoid the appearance of bias, newspapers and broadcasters often present competing positions without commenting on their merits (except in their editorials and columns).
The problem is that the positions reported may not have any factual grounding or may be based on factual claims that are contested. If the media simply reports the factual assertions of one side without ensuring that they are accurate, or if they report competing factual claims with no comment on the accuracy of the claims, then the audience will at worst be misled and at best be denied enough information to make a reasoned judgment.
Levant appeared on at least three CBC national radio programs – The Sunday Edition, Cross-Country Check-Up, and the Current. Each program allowed him to repeat his false claims with little or no challenge and so gave them validation. When Levant asserts in an interview that the CHRC has a 100% conviction rate and is not challenged by the interviewer, the audience might reasonably assume that his claim is true.
When the media treats factual claims the same way it treats opinions, and simply channels them to the audience, how is the audience to know whether the claims made are true. The audience has no other meaningful access to the facts. Even when the audience hears competing versions of the facts how are they to decide between them, if the media does not arbitrate or even comment on these factual ‘disputes’.
Because there is often no common factual ground, it is left to the members of the audience simply to choose their position, based on ‘gut instinct’ or ideological predisposition. Not surprisingly individuals tend to adopt the factual claims that fit with the views they currently hold and to discount or reject those that do not. If I am already wary of ‘big government’ or resentful of ‘political correctness’, I will be more receptive to the claims of Levant of Steyn.
While the neo-conservative impulse behind Levant’s attack on HRCs may encourage those who share this outlook to accept his ungrounded claims, it may also prevent him from winning support from all elements of the political spectrum, at least for his ultimate goal, the abolition of human rights commissions.
12. The second factor that has contributed to the spread of these false claims in the mainstream media is the emergence of advocacy columns.
Most mainstream print publications, while seeking to be impartial in their news reporting, publish opinion columns. Most of these columns offer a careful, factually grounded, analysis of current affairs, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the columnist. However, in recent years there has been a proliferation of columns, modeled on television commentary, that are designed to be provocative – to attract readers who strongly agree or disagree with the positions taken by the columnist.
The authors of these columns, most of whom did not previously work as reporters, are prepared to address a remarkably wide range of issues, about which they have little or no background knowledge. Their object is advocacy rather than accuracy, and so they make simple and dramatic claims, often with little factual support. Indeed, they often seem to show the same indifference to factual accuracy, as political spinners.
Rex Murphy’s column in the Globe and Mail is a good example. In the pieces he has written about the CHRC he has taken his information straight from Ezra Levant’s blog. On one occasion he wrote a column about how outrageous it was that the Chief Commissioner of the CHRC would lay a wreath at the war memorial in Ottawa, when she obviously had no grasp of the freedoms for which Canadian soldiers had fought. Only two days earlier Levant had written about the very same thing, although in less grandiloquent terms.
The emergence of this type of opinion column is part of the gradual reshaping of the print news media in the image of the entertainment-oriented current affairs programming that appears on television.
13. This takes me to the third factor that contributes to the non-critical reporting of claims about the CHRC.
Contributing to the problem of factual distortion is the tendency of the television (and increasingly newspapers) to avoid complex analysis and to sensationalize issues. Television, as a visual medium, does better with spectacle, and with claims that are simple, direct and dramatic.
Television current affairs programming often focuses on extreme positions. Accusations of corruption, deceit, or patent injustice play much better on television than do more nuanced arguments or moderate or conciliatory positions. Issues are generally presented as if they have only two sides, each of which is simple, straightforward, and diametrically opposed to the other. Even when both sides of an issue are represented, they don’t engage with each other, at least not in any way that might contribute to audience understanding, or to the discovery of common ground. The two sides generally make different factual assertions or assumptions. Because the competing positions are so far apart and rest on completely different versions of the facts, the audience cannot learn from each but must choose one over the other.
In seeking to entertain, the broadcast media often provide a platform for views, sometimes extreme views, without providing sufficient context to enable the audience to assess the positions taken or even to grasp what is at issue. The audience is rarely given enough information and often lacks the background knowledge necessary to evaluate the claims made.
14. In the end the debate about human rights commissions, like so much public debate, involves no real engagement between competing positions, and no real opportunity for the audience to judge whether or not the current law is good policy. The complexity of the issue is avoided or suppressed. The merits of the case, either for or against hate speech regulation by HRCs, is lost in a sea of exaggerations and fabrications.
It is left to the audience, if it is paying attention, to make a choice, not based on reasoned judgment, but on their existing views, on their ideological predispositions, either suspicion of government regulation or belief in the importance of human rights protection. The choice presented to the audience is between diametrically opposed positions, between the status quo and its repudiation.
While the critics of the CHRC have been successful in spreading their views, all they can hope for is a marginal win in a polarized debate. This is the most spin can accomplish. It will not advance democratic engagement or meaningful discussion of public policy, and it cannot bring about consensus or compromise or even respectful disagreement based on an awareness of the costs and benefits of the different responses.
The costs of spin are even more fundamental than this though. Spin degrades public discourse, so that we no longer expect to be told the truth and are no longer able to evaluate positions based on the accuracy of their claims or assumptions. Spin encourages the fragmentation of the civic audience into insular ideological communities that are unable to engage with each other.