Free Speech Wins -- Sort Of -- In Canada
Last month, when an officer of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission interrogated him about his decision to reprint the notorious Muhammad cartoons that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Ezra Levant did not try to ingratiate himself. Levant, former publisher of the news magazine the Western Standard, called the commission “a sick joke,” compared it unfavorably with Judge Judy, and dared the “thug” across the table to recommend that he face a hearing for publishing material that offended Muslims.As on U.S. college campuses, the fact that a spunky person or group can beat the censors isn’t sufficient. The should not have to.
That way, Levant explained, he could be convicted, which would give him a chance to challenge the censorship that Canadian human rights commissions practice in the name of fighting discrimination. “I do not want to be excused from this complaint because I was reasonable,” he said. “It is not the government’s authority to tell me whether or not I’m reasonable.”
Legally, that remains to be seen. Canada’s national and provincial human rights commissions were established in the 1970s to vet complaints about discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services. But many of them have broad legal mandates that can be used to attack freedom of speech. Alberta’s Human Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Act, for example, prohibits publishing anything that “is likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt.”
Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, claims Levant did that by running the Muhammad cartoons. “Publishing of cartoons in the Western Standards [sic] is in fact spreading hate against me,” Soharwady scrawled on a complaint form he submitted to the commission in February 2006. He also complained that “Mr. Ezra Levant insulted me” when the two debated the cartoon controversy on CBC Radio. Soharwardy is demanding an apology. The commission can impose fines and gag orders as well.
Meanwhile, the Canadian, Ontario, and British Columbia human rights commissions are considering similar complaints against Maclean’s magazine and the journalist Mark Steyn over an October 2006 article adapted from his book America Alone. The Canadian Islamic Congress claims Steyn “subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt” and harms their “sense of dignity and self-worth” by worrying about high Muslim birth rates.
Even if a complaint is dismissed, Levant notes, responding to it requires “thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees” and “an enormous amount of time,” which encourages journalists to steer clear of touchy subjects. “A warning shot has gone out to every other media [outlet] in the country,” he said during the 90-minute commission interview. “‘Don’t mess around with the Muslim radicals, because they’ll call in the censors.’”
Most people don’t much like conflict, and particularly don’t like having to pay high legal fees just to enjoy the right of free speech.
So actual instances of censorship aren’t the real issue. The chilling effect of the mere threat of censorship is what’s pernicious.