Predictions? I have a few for 2012.

  • January 3, 2012

Predictions are always a risky business, but since the new year infects many of us with a “crystal ball bug” I will venture that  changes are coming in free-speech legislation and in the rights of parents in public education. One private members’ bill and two court cases are well worth watching in this regard, and may even bring good news to Catholics involved with public advocacy.

A private members’ bill introduced by MP Brian Storseth last fall will, if enacted, revoke Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which deems discriminatory any action “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” if they are “identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of  discrimination.” This section gives the federal human rights commission significant powers to penalize those publishing opinion online, including opinion based on religious belief.

In effect, Section 13 and its parallels in some provinces grant court powers to bodies that are not courts. These administrative tribunals were intended to combat discrimination in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services.

But Section 13 extends this “policing” power to the Internet, providing a means to police and penalize politically incorrect opinions. Flaws in commissions’ current operations include the presumption of guilt until innocence is proven, open-ended timelines for dealing with a complaint and the imposition of financial costs on defendants while a complainant faces little if any expense.

Due to some high-profile cases, the media played a significant and mostly positive role in raising awareness of this human rights’ legislation and its possible abuses. In 2008, Muslim activists used Section 13 and similar provincial versions to file complaints against Maclean’s magazine for running an excerpt of Mark Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone. Though the complaint was eventually dismissed, the magazine spent hundreds of thousands of dollars  defending itself. Catholic Insight magazine and its editor Fr. Alphonse De Valk incurred legal costs of tens of thousands of dollars after a complaint based on some articles upholding Church teaching on homosexual conduct. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary faced charges following newspaper columns on the same topic.

Storseth’s bill is focused on the federal CHRA. He filed a motion that led to the House Justice Committee’s investigation of Section 13 in the last Parliament. Second reading and vote on Storseth’s bill is expected early in the new year.

A second ruling worth watching is the Supreme Court of Canada’s pending decision in the William Whatcott free speech case. Like Storseth’s bill, it will also be significant in its implications for free speech and what body can police it.

A fundamentalist Christian, Whatcott’s pamphleteering involved crudely expressed and extreme viewpoints about the so-called gay rights’ agenda. But the issue at stake is a person’s freedom to express viewpoints based on religious belief, and how speech in these instances is to be regulated, if at all.

In another pending decision, the Supreme Court of Canada will soon explore the commonly understood recognition of parental rights in education. This case arose from changes to the curriculum in Quebec introduced in 2009.

The right of parents as first educators of their children is confirmed in numerous statutes, including Vatican and UN declarations, and is assumed to be part of how public schools, indeed the majority of all schools, operate. However, many parents believe that curriculum, especially on controversial and morally sensitive topics, is created and imposed without their knowledge, and that any opportunity for input is at the 11th hour and mostly perfunctory.

The Quebec case was brought by parents who were denied the right to remove their children from a mandatory new course on ethics and religious culture. The Supreme Court will address whether the state has a right to impose curriculum and make participation by all children mandatory against the wishes of parents, who may object on religious grounds.

Its ruling will provide a precedent that is likely to impact similar situations in other provinces, and along with the Storseth bill and the Whatcott case could result in significant change in coming months.

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