Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The limits of speech in Canada

Via Wendy McElroy's blog comes news of the persecution of Ezra Levant, former publisher of the conservative magazine Western Standard (now available only online) by the horribly mis-named Alberta Human Rights Commission. Levant has been summoned before the commission, under threat of legal penalties, to answer complaints about his magazine's reprinting of cartoons critical of Islam, originally published, amidst much controversy, by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005 as a comment on self-censorship and political correctness. The complaints allege that the printing of the cartoons foments "hate" against Canadian Muslims and that it is the business of the government to monitor speech and suppress that which offends certain groups.

To Levant's credit, he came out swinging. He's documenting the whole ordeal on his blog, including video clips of the proceedings published against the commission's wishes. His opening statement questioned the very legitimacy of the commission and its seeming interest in regulating what ought to be free speech.

I am here at this government interrogation under protest. It is my position that the government has no legal or moral authority to interrogate me or anyone else for publishing these words and pictures. That is a violation of my ancient and inalienable freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and in this case, religious freedom and the separation of mosque and state. It is especially perverted that a bureaucracy calling itself the Alberta human rights commission would be the government agency violating my human rights. So I will now call those bureaucrats “the commission” or “the hrc”, since to call the commission a “human rights commission” is to destroy the meaning of those words.

This isn't the first time a north-of-the-border human rights commission has stepped into questionable territory. The conservative writer Mark Steyn has also been targeted because Macleans magazine published an excerpt from his book, America Alone, which is harshly critical of Muslim immigrants to the West. A woman named Jessica Beaumont was issued a cease-and-desist order by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for publishing anti-gay Bible verses on American websites. And Stephen Boisson, the executive director of the Concerned Christian Coalition, faces sanctions for similar anti-gay views voiced in a letter-to-the-editor published in a newspaper.

The opinions that draw the attention of the "human rights" bureaucrats are, in many cases, objectionable to large numbers of people, but none of them rise to the level of physical attacks, or even incitement to violence. They are, in all cases, expressions of strongly held thoughts and beliefs that may excite equally strong reactions -- precisely the sort of speech that free speech protections of the sort contained in the U.S. First Amendment and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are suppose to cover if they are to have any meaning at all.

Civil libertarian Alan Borovoy, who had a hand in the creation of Canada's human rights tribunals, now publicly regrets what they have become, saying, "During the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech." Elsewhere, Borovoy commented, "Even truthful articles describing some of the awful situations in this world could run afoul of this law, it is so broad and such a potential threat to freedom of speech."

Every government is subject to criticism about the inroads it makes into the natural rights of the people who are subject to its power. The U.S., as most posts on this blog demonstrate, is no exception. But free speech is really the ultimate test of a political institution. If officials respect people's right to say things that raise hackles and produce protests, then they're at least pretending to abide by some limitations on their power; if they openly suppress ideas that offend them, then they clearly see no proper limits on their authority to intrude into people's lives.

Canada's political institutions, at the moment, are failing the test.



Anonymous Andrew said...

"During the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech."

And there it is. Laid bare for us all to see. The type of thinking that paved the road to hell.

January 15, 2008 3:52 PM  

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