Farewell Free Speech
The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal says so long to freedom of speech.


All this week, journalist Andrew Coyne has been in a windowless basement room liveblogging the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in Vancouver on behalf of his employer, Maclean’s, a popular newsweekly in Canada. However, what’s perhaps most unusual is that Coyne’s employer is the target of the tribunal.

You see, thanks to the ability of Canadian government bureaucrats to hold “human rights tribunals,” they no longer have free speech in Canada. A group of radical Muslims filed a complaint against the magazine for publishing a cover story from National Review’s own Mark Steyn about the growing Muslim influence in Europe. Now the magazine and Steyn are the subject of multiple “human rights” tribunals at the provincial level in British Columbia as well as before the national Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Coyne’s pithy missives from Vancouver have done a great deal to expose how transparently totalitarian these tribunals are. National Review Online’s Mark Hemingway checked in with Coyne to see how these human rights tribunals turned kanagroo courts are continuing to destroy freedom of the press in his country.

NRO: What’s the scene like at the hearing? Are there people outside protesting, or anything of that sort?

COYNE: There were a few on the first day. They were fans of Steyn. There were a few people carrying signs saying “Free Mark Steyn.” I think a couple of them were carrying blank signs. Apparently there was some effort, and I don’t know this for a fact, but from what I read on my blog from commentors, there was some effort to try to whip up Muslims to protest these hearings and nobody showed up. But I don’t know that for a fact.

In terms of external appearances, you’d be hard pressed to know that there was a trial or a hearing going on. It’s being held in a cramped, basement to the courtroom, despite that the seating is for about 20 or 30 in two rows. There is no provision made for the press, there are no windows. There’s also little in the way of air conditioning — pretty stifling in there. For the trial of the century though, it’s pretty subdued.

Is there a lot of media scrutiny up in Canada over this case?

COYNE: It’s been rising as more and more people became aware of the stakes. For a while there wasn’t a lot of coverage, but as time has gone by there’s been more commentary, almost universally condemning the whole nonsense, which is gratifying. But that’s out of self-interest. This is an affair between a famous writer and some of his antagonists.

The mere existence of this type of legislation, that’s gotten away at the provincial level, is a serious threat to press freedom. We’ve had these human rights tribunals now for decades. For the most part they were set up to oversee things like discrimination in hiring and lodging and traditional concerns of discrimination law, and it’s only in the last few years that they’re starting to go after things that are much more connected to speech. I think a lot of people kind of looked the other way when they were prosecuting neo-Nazis; they would go after people for leaving racist messages on their voicemail. So in order to be exposed to the hatred you’d have to: a) know the number and b) call it. 1-800-Hate-A-Jew or something. It’s awful stuff, but is it the kind of stuff we should be sending government after?

Fortunately, in a sort of way, they seem to have elected to overreach themselves by going after Maclean’s — I don’t know if I’ve expressed to you how anodyne it’s been over the years; it’s a much livelier magazine now. It’s much more controversial, sparky magazine in the last 2 years since Ken Whyte took over. It has the status of a beloved national institution, not what anyone would associate with controversies of this kind. It has great respect as a community magazine, and the notion that this should be the proper avenue for government inquiries I think strikes most people as ludicrous.

NRO: But Ontario provincial human rights commission did not take the take the case?

COYNE: Ontario said, ‘we don’t have jurisdiction over this, but if we did, we would strongly announce that it was Islamophobic.’ They eventually convicted us without the cost and inconvenience of holding a hearing.

My hope is that they will be seen as so overreaching themselves that there will be some pressure, some movement, to repeal the legislation that gives them any license to go after speech. At the federal level there was what we call a “private members bill,” a piece of legislation put forward unusually in Canada, by an individual member of Parliament rather than by the government to address the section of the federal legislation that allows them to go after speech cases. As of yet, it doesn’t have the support of any of the parties and probably would not pass because of that. They’re afraid, I suppose.

My hope is that it will go to appeal — in other words, I’m hoping that we lose this at the hearing level and that we appeal it to a proper court of law, as opposed to these quasi-judicial tribunals, and at that proper court of law that we make the constitutional argument that this is an infringement of our charter rights to freedom of the press. I believe that’s what we’ll do if we lose the case.