Censorship and "Human Rights" in Alberta
I'm late in getting to this, but I have to comment on the case of Ezra Levant. Levant is the former publisher of a right-wing Canadian opinion magazine named The Western Standard. When the Danish Mohammed cartoons became an issue in early 2006, the Standard republished them. In a piece for Pajamas Media, Heather Cook describes what happened next:
On the very day that the Western Standard with the infamous cartoons was being printed, Levant appeared on Calgary radio to debate Syed Soharwardy, an imam trained at an anti-Semitic Saudi university, who advocates Sharia law in Canada. The debate centered around the cartoons and all the accompanying shouldas, wouldas and couldas. Soharwardy did not know that Levant was about to publish the cartoons (a.k.a. offend Mohammed), but that did not matter. Levant was the clear winner in the debate and that offended Soharwardy, who marched down to a Calgary Police station and demanded that they arrest Levant for offending him during the debate and simply discussing the cartoons in the media.
After the officers explained that they didn’t do that in Canada, Soharwardy filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The Commission is made up of individuals appointed by the government to hear human rights complaints. The commissioners are a mish-mash of lawyers, nurses, politicians, engineers, who may or may not have direct legal experience. It costs nothing to file a complaint, so Soharwardy could avail himself of it at no charge while the defendant bears the cost of his defense.
Unfortunately, Soharwardy has a record of wishing to suppress views that offend him. In addition to the complaint he filed against Levant, he also called, in the words of Niaz Salimi, for "changes in Canada's Hate Laws that would make it possible to jail writers who, in their opinion, insult or mock religious beliefs."
A week ago today, Ezra Levant was forced to appear before a representative of the AHRC to answer Soharwardy's complaint. In a now famous You Tube clip, Levant eloquently defended his right of free expression:
Levant has posted the text of his statement to his blog. The following passage is well worth quoting:
But even if the commissions had some statutory fig leaf for their attempts at political and religious censorship, it would still be unlawful and unconstitutional.
We have a heritage of free speech that we inherited from Great Britain that goes back to the year 1215 and the Magna Carta. We have a heritage of eight hundred years of British common law protection for speech, augmented by 250 years of common law in Canada.
That common law has been restated in various fundamental documents, especially since the Second World War.
In 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a party, declared that, quote:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights guaranteed, quote
1. “ human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely,
(c) freedom of religion; (d) freedom of speech; (e) freedom of assembly and association; and (f) freedom of the press.
In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed, quote:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
a) freedom of conscience and religion;
b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
Those were even called “fundamental freedoms” – to give them extra importance.
For a government bureaucrat to call any publisher or anyone else to an interrogation to be quizzed about his political or religious expression is a violation of 800 years of common law, a Universal Declaration of Rights, a Bill of Rights and a Charter of Rights. This commission is applying Saudi values, not Canadian values.
There is something deeply disturbing about a publisher being compelled to appear before a government bureaucrat to defend his right to publish what he wants. That this is happening in a democracy is especially shameful. In a free society, the state has no business punishing people for expressing "hurtful" or "outrageous" opinions. It is frankly impossible for a society to have open and meaningful debate without someone saying something that will offend others. The idea that the state should act against those who state views that others find hurtful is anathema to the principle of free expression.
(Thanks to Harry's Place for the links, and also to a reader who emailed me about this case.)