Wrong solution

  • February 15, 2008

{mosimage}Until Liberal MP Keith Martin tabled a private members’ motion in the House of Commons on Jan. 30, the problem of human rights commissions dabbling in censorship of free speech had really not hit the political radar screens. Now, however, the politicians have been forced to take note and, predictably, they wonder what the fuss is all about.

But fuss there has been, and plenty of it. Across Canada, human rights commissions are investigating accusations of group defamation against publications and individuals. Maclean’s is being forced to defend itself for publishing an excerpt of a book by journalist Mark Steyn that portrays Islam as aggressively taking over Europe. Ezra Levant of Calgary, a former publisher of the now defunct Western Standard, is defending himself for publishing Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed. Catholic Insight magazine is accused of fomenting hatred against homosexuals. And the list goes on.

It hasn’t escaped notice that free speech is being squelched by a quasi-judicial system in which the human rights commission is prosecutor, judge and jury, under rules that are impossibly vague. The accusers tend to be individuals and groups who claim they have been exposed to public hatred, though they rarely have to show evidence that this is true.

Recognizing the very serious threat to democracy if human rights commissions are not reined in, Martin proposes to remove the section in the Canadian Human Rights Act that allows the Canadian commission to hear such anti-hate cases (see story on Page 3). Unfortunately, he has little support in the House of Commons.

His own party leader, Stephane Dion, is reported to want Martin to withdraw his motion. And New Democrat MP Joe Comartin likes the act as is, arguing that this is the only way offended groups can defend themselves against defamation.

It’s no surprise that when legislators think of solutions to these kinds of disputes, they immediately see the answer in the courts. Most of them are lawyers, after all.

But not all of society’s problems can be handled through the courts. Nor should they. In fact, in these particular cases, the “problem” is that certain individuals and groups have been insulted by the claims of other individuals and groups. But in a free and democratic society, being offended by the ideas and words of others is inescapable. The free exchange of ideas makes for a sometimes nasty public debate. That comes with the territory, though; while civil and respectful discourse is the ideal we should all aim to achieve, this doesn’t deny the value of ideas couched in sometimes rude language.

The danger in letting quasi-judicial tribunals arbitrate disputes over language and ideas is that everyone loses. Today, it is Mark Steyn and Catholic Insight. Tomorrow, it is the Roman Catholic Church in Canada.

Some matters are best left to be thrashed out in the court of public opinion. There’s a better chance justice will be achieved there than in the hands of a government tribunal.

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