Canada's First Big Test Of Freedom of Press

Doug Collins is a self-proclaimed "politically incorrect" septuagenarian Vancouver columnist who takes pride in being one of Canada's most controversial newspaper writers. Critics call him a bigot.

His favorite topics include: Hitler killed far fewer than 6 million Jews; immigrants are ruining Canada; and homosexuals bring AIDS on themselves. Mr. Collins has written such inflammatory stuff for years.

But last week, the Human Rights Commission of British Columbia, a government arm, ordered Collins and the newspaper that prints his column to appear before a tribunal on charges of printing a "discriminatory publication" exposing Jews to hatred.

It is the first time in Canadian history that a newspaper stands to be heavily fined for publishing a columnist's opinions - and it will likely be the first big test of Canada's constitutional protection of press freedoms.

Some say Collins may be Canada's version of Larry Flynt, the American pornography publisher whose fight to publish unhindered went to the United States Supreme Court. Flynt won.

But Collins's case is far less certain. Canada's experiment with legally "guaranteed" freedom of expression is still young. Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, akin to the US Bill of Rights, goes back only to 1982. In Canada the press does not enjoy the same latitude accorded the press in the US. Canada's criminal code bars "hate speech" that is typically tolerated in the US under First Amendment provisions.

Bernie Farber, spokesman for the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which filed the complaint against Collins, says Canada is correctly walking a careful line between free speech and the rights of groups and individuals.

"In Canada there isn't complete freedom of speech, and newspaper reporters are as responsible for their speech and writing as any other Canadian citizen," he says.

Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Toronto, questions the tactic. "This is not an appropriate way for a democratic society to treat someone's opinion," he says. "It is appropriate to publicly censure people who make the sorts of remarks he does. But ... [not] to legally censor them."

Collins is charged under a section of the province's human rights code stating that publication of any statement that "indicates" discrimination or "is likely" to expose a person or a group to hatred or contempt is forbidden.

Timothy Renshaw is managing editor of the North Shore News, the 60,000-circulation weekly that is defending its right to carry the columns. He says the provincial government has long been irritated by Collins's work, and was gunning for him when it amended its human rights code in January. Mr. Renshaw and Mr. Borovoy point out that the complaint is being heard by a one-person, government-appointed human rights tribunal. They note there are no "defenses" against being charged - or even ways to tell what constitutes hate speech in Canada.

In its complaint, the CJC cites Collins's March 9, 1994, column, "Hollywood Propaganda." In it, he calls "Schindler's List" - an award-winning movie about a German who saves thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps - "Swindler's List." He says Hollywood movies about the Holocaust have so brainwashed the public that "Dr. Goebbels himself couldn't have done any better."

Collins says he is perplexed. "I merely described the situation as I see it in Hollywood and the effect it has on the media and the public at large...."

Gerald Porter, executive secretary of the British Columbia Press Council, say this case represents political correctness run amok.

Says Murray Mollard, policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association: "Individual citizens determine what our society is going to be like, and that requires unfettered access to all ideas."

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