16 January 2008

Protecting "rights", miscarrying justice

Like the bills of rights of many constitutional democracies, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms claims to protect "freedom of conscience and religion" and "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." That would seem straightforward enough. However, Canada's human rights tribunals are encroaching on these liberties in the name, ironically, of protecting human rights. Here are a few of the cases:

  • Three complaints have been filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Ron Gray and the Christian Heritage Party, accusing them of fomenting hatred of and contempt for homosexuals.

  • A complaint has been made against the journal Catholic Insight on charges similar to those of which Gray and the CHP are accused.

  • Ezra Levant has been brought before the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission for republishing those infamous Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Western Standard.

  • The Canadian Islamic Congress has complained to two human rights tribunals that Columnist Mark Steyn and that venerable Canadian institution, Macleans, are guilty of publishing an article that "subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt" and is "islamophobic." The article, The future belongs to Islam, is excerpted from Steyn's controversial book, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.

  • Not surprisingly, while the first two cases were largely ignored by the press, the latter two have been given considerable publicity for reasons not too difficult to figure out. Even Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is not pleased with this development. Borovoy has said that he and others helped to create the human rights commissions "to deal with discriminatory deeds ... not discriminatory words. Nobody thought it would be used to censure freedom of expression." Canada's opinion moulders were apparently unwilling to come to the defence of Gray and Catholic Insight, perhaps because they were disseminating opinions that are deemed to be out of the mainstream. But of course the real test for freedom of speech is the toleration and protection of unpopular opinions.

    We Canadians have a reputation for being bland and inoffensive. But we risk tyranny when we permit quasi-judicial tribunals, with few if any constitutional constraints, to enforce with coercive power this blandness and inoffensiveness to the detriment of healthy public debate. It is time to limit the jurisdiction of these tribunals or perhaps to abolish them altogether.

    Short of these outcomes, I have another idea. What if Gray, Steyn, Levant, & al., were to file a counter-complaint against the complainants, charging that the latter are attempting to infringe on their human right of free speech under the Charter? Would it go anywhere? If nothing else, it would certainly test the commissions' creativity. It might be worth a try.

    Later: You will have to register to see this, but here is Levant's appearance before the Alberta Human Rights Commission. It's quite a performance.

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