Conservate Pundits Battle Human Rights Commissions: This is the second of a three part series on the Canadian Human Rights Commission and “hate” speech cases. In my first post, I talked about Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the so-called “hate speech” provision.
READ MORE IN THE NEWS: An interview with Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress and complainant against Maclean’s magazine, was featured yesterday (Nov 22) in the National Post. Also, Liberal MP Keith Martin has re-introduced legislation to repeal Section 13. Finally, the biggest splash of the week will undoubtedly happen on Monday, Nov 24. Prof. Richard Moon, an independent lawyer from the University of Windsor, is releasing a report on the workings of the CHRC. Part III, which I will release on Monday, will include discussion of this development.
As far as plots go, the story almost writes itself.
A journalist publishes a controversial editorial. He ruffles some feathers. A policing agency steps in to censor the opinion. And the journalist must fight a valiant battle for the right to speak.
It could be told anywhere: in a fascist or communist dictatorship, in the battle for civil rights, or in some banana republic.
But it happened in Canada. Twice in the past year. One involved Mark Steyn of Maclean’s, while the other featured Ezra Levant of the Western Standard.
Even the particulars are remarkably similar: a bellicose pundit publishing an unflattering depiction of Islam goes before a provincial human rights body. And both Steyn and Levant have relished their roles as journalists cum martyrs, goading their opponents and openly daring commissions to rule against them.
Ezra Levant: Who’s Paying For All This?
Ezra Levant is one pugnacious fella.
One look at Levant’s blog will prove that. While chock full of defamatory statements and harsh rhetoric, Levant’s online editorials are regularly cited for their role in the fight for free speech against the Human Rights Commissions.
Levant’s following may be mostly among Canadian neo-cons and libertarians, but his story has garnered sympathy from mainstream media as well. In one of Rick Mercer’s trademark rants, for instance, the comedian called Western Standard “a completely nutty magazine,” described Levant as “one of the most aggravating men on this earth,” but defended him as “god forbid, a freedom fighter.”
This image of the cartoons is deliberately unclear, and is used solely as illustrative material for this posting.
In February of 2006, Levant published a set of cartoon depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Originally published September 30, 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the editorial cartoons deliberately exacerbated tensions with the countries’ Muslim minority. The depictions, soon reprinted throughout the world, spawned a violent backlash in several Islamic countries. Levant published the cartoons in the midst of these violent outbursts, and after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had asked the media to stop reprinting the incendiary pieces.
Levant’s act of republishing the cartoons seems as much a publicity stunt as anything else. As one pundit noted, the decision of papers worldwide to reprint the Danish cartoons is bizarre in many ways, not least of which is that “it seems doubtful that the reprints are speaking to the right audience.” In the face of worldwide violence, the mainstream Canadian press declined to reprint the cartoons.
But Levant likes a good fight. So he went ahead and published them. Shortly after, a Calgary imam complained to Calgary Police and launched a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, the Alberta legislative version of the CHRC. Nearly two years later, Levant was called to the commission to respond to the complaint in January 2008. Levant recorded the proceedings and posted them on youtube.com. The complaint was ultimately dismissed in August.
A major reason Levant has garnered so much sympathy is the financial ramifications of his battle. Levant maintains that the investigation cost him over one hundred thousand dollars, compared to human rights complaints, which are free for the complainant and paid for by taxpayers. The disparity between costs has subsequently been seized on as one of the fatal flaws of human rights commissions.
Compared to the relatively deep pockets and high circulation of Maclean’s, Levant’s fledgling Western Standard filled a small libertarian niche created by the demise of Western Report (in its various incarnations). During the course of the investigation, the magazine ceased printing due to its unprofitability and Levant sold the online version.
Maclean’s: Whose Rights Are More Important?
Although typically understood as a free speech story, the “hate” speech case against Maclean’s was painted by the BC Human Rights Tribunal as a matter of balancing competing human rights.
The human rights complaint launched against Maclean’s involved 18 articles of an allegedly “Islamophobic” nature published between January 2005 and July 2007. Shortly after the publication of these articles, a group of York University Muslim law students met with Maclean’s editorial staff to try to convince the magazine to publish an article with a viewpoint opposing Steyn. The students were refused.
The Canadian Islamic Congress’ human rights complaints focused attention on the writing of Mark Steyn, a conservative Canadian-born pundit living in the U.S. Steyn’s article, “The Future Belongs to Islam,” was excerpted from his 2006 book, America Alone. Steyn’s detractors argued that he depicted Islam as a militant global ideology “hot for jihad” and intent on triumph in the demographically-challenged democratic western world.
Separate complaints were filed against Maclean’s: one with the CHRC, another with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and a third with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal. Ontario argued it didn’t have the jurisdiction to deal with the complaint, the CHRC dismissed the complaint in July without going to the CHRT. Only the BC Human Rights Tribunal heard the case, but dismissed it on October 10, 2008.
The case against Maclean’s magazine involves a complication of the popular storyline. Rather than simply addressing free speech, the question the Tribunal addressed was how competing rights should be balanced. As the judgment at the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal noted, “two important and potentially competing rights” are at stake: freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination on religious grounds.
The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal determined that the complainants had “not met their burden of demonstrating that the Article rises to the level of detestation, calumny and vilification necessary to breach” the hate provisions of the B.C. Code.
While the Tribunal ruled in favour of Maclean’s, its assessment of the evidence was hardly favourable. The BC tribunal described Steyn’s article as expressing “strong, polemical, and, at times, glib opinions about Muslims.” Moreover, Maclean’s was criticized for appearing to direct its conduct “to the media coverage of the hearing rather than supporting the positions it had taken in its original response to the complaint.”