Politics & Policy

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.

NRO: 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.

NRO: You’re not likely to be acquitted are you?

COYNE: We’ve seen in the first two days of hearings here, they have mystifying rules of evidence, if any. They make it up as they go along as to what gets allowed into evidence and what doesn’t. And I’m sure they’re not used to having such scrutiny, with many high-powered lawyers in the room. It’s pretty much a travesty.

NRO: Are Canadian interest groups playing a role in this ? In the United States if you had this, you’d have the ACLU and about two-dozen organizations screaming bloody murder.

COYNE: We have a couple intervenors here, who have official intervenor status; they’re the good guys. There’s a B.C. civil rights organization — not a national civil rights organization but a provincial one, and they’re quite good. So is the Canadian Association of Journalists, which I wish I could say I knew would help, but I was pleasantly surprised. So the Canadian Association of Journalists has kind of woken up to an endangerment of their livelihoods.

But no, we don’t have a strong history of free speech for organizations. There’s a Canadian Civil Liberties Association but it’s pretty much the creation of one guy – Alan Borovoy. And he’s very old now. He’s a giant of a guy; he has a long and distinguished career. In fact, you may not find this to his credit, but he was one of the people who was involved in the original organization of some of these human rights tribunals on discrimination grounds. He has been much quoted recently, saying “Look, we never had any intention that had anything to do with speech.” That is effective in public relations terms because one of the guys who was involved in setting it up is appalled with this thing. For a lot of people who don’t know what to think about it, that’s probably pretty persuasive.

NRO: Why do you think people in the United States haven’t been paying closer attention to this? Why should they?

COYNE: It would depend on the kinds of laws and institutions you have in the states that they might be able to deploy. There may be no leverage or hand-hold that they could get in that regard. What’s clear is that there’s some sense among Muslims – and not all Muslims by any stretch – moderate Muslim leaders and organizations who themselves see the threat to their reputation and their country of this kind of radicalism and they denounce them in the strongest terms.

They [the radicals] are to be praised in some sense because they are making use of the tools that the democratic society has seen fit to give them. I wish they hadn’t, but there you go. What’s clear is that the people in this case don’t see a separation between their own personal beliefs which they’re perfectly entitled to hold, and what the state is. So we’re having long debates in the courtroom about whether or not Mark Steyn properly understands the relationship between the Koran and Islamic society; maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he got it wrong. Usually these things lead to blog posts and TV and the usual things that happen when somebody write a controversial article.

What they don’t see is the separation — between that and having a state body decide the matter. This kind of thinking exists in a lot of places, that ‘I cannot really abide by disagreeing with something; I have to bring in something to suppress it.’ A lot of people on all sides have trouble making that distinction.

What they’re also trying to make sense of is the law they’re invoking says that any speech that is “likely to expose people to hatred or contempt.” So they bring in evidence of crazy blog posts that were inspired by Steyn’s article, and somehow Maclean’s becomes responsible for the entire blogosphere. Who knows whether these things were inspired by Steyn’s article or not, but in any understanding of the role of speech in society one of the risks is that crazy people may take an argument and run with it.

But we don’t usually take that as the reason to shut down any speech to begin with. We say, “Well, this is part of the ripples and reverberations of any speech, and the answer is that bad speech is better speech.” I think there’s a particular institutional setting in Canada that may not be comparable to the States, but I think the base underlying impulse and thought process that I think might be also present in the States.


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