When free speech offends Muslims
Cases in Canada show the value of standing firm.
"Everybody favours free speech in the slack moments when no axes are being ground," 20th-century American journalist Heywood Broun once wrote. The real test of mettle is allowing free speech to thrive while axes aggressively grind. Just ask Canadian publisher Ezra Levant and author Mark Steyn.Skip to next paragraph
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In February 2006, Levant's conservative magazine, the now-online-only Western Standard, reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons. Shortly thereafter, Syed Soharwardy, the national president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, filed a Koranic-verse laden complaint against Mr. Levant with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission, claiming discrimination.
Canada's Human Rights Commissions (HRC) are government agencies, not courts. They were set up, starting in the 1960s, to fight job and housing discrimination – offensive acts, not words. Borne of good intention, some argue they have paved a path to politically correct hell. Those behind the creation of the commissions maintain they were never meant to impede free speech – a right guaranteed under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and that "thought crime" cases represent a fraction of the commissions' work.
As many of those complaints were brought against crackpot anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, or Christian fundamentalists expressing extreme antigay views, few Canadians wasted a moment worrying about them. Therein lies the cautionary tale. The odious have to be free to speak – provided they are not inciting violence – or none of us are.
With limited exceptions, the aforementioned cases received little attention. Then along came Levant. Even those to whom he is not beloved are waking up to the dangers of a lumbering system in which there are no real rules of procedure, the accused must pay their own way and could ultimately be compelled to pay a fine and apologize, while the complainant relies on taxpayers to protect his or her "human right" to not feel offended.
Levant is preternaturally media savvy, and when he made his appearance before the Alberta commission – this January – he had it videotaped, promptly posting the recordings on YouTube. Some 400,000 people have watched his bristly exchanges with the hapless commission representative. Levant, a lawyer, peppered her with questions of his own and reminded her of the freedoms that the HRC was trampling upon:
"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."