A curious view on free speech in Canada

cross-posted at: http://www.campaignfreedom.org/blog

Our gaze doesn’t often leave the U.S. of A. in terms of commenting on speech restrictions in other countries. When we do, it’s often with a mixture of relief and concern.

Relief because we see that even as difficult as it is here in the U.S. to speak out in politics thanks to so-called campaign finance “reform,” there are places where it is far more difficult to voice certain opinions that are contrary to the government-approved orthodoxy. Concern because we see the road down which we may be headed (and that many urge we go down), and it is not one that embraces the notion that citizens have the right to express themselves on controversial issues.

Some time ago I blogged briefly about the kangaroo court show trial of Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s, hauled before the Canadian Commission on Human Rights for the offense of running several articles and columns that were apparently, well, offensive to some parts of Canada’s Muslim community.

Ultimately the charges against Maclean’s were dismissed, in all three tribunals that heard the matter (provinces have their own Human Rights Commissions, and two of them also considered complaints against Maclean’s on the same issue). Others have not been so lucky – a pastor was fined and told he could never again speak out, write, or publish comments that might be seen as “disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals.”, and other Canadian citizens are routinely harassed and forced to justify their speech to the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the provincial equivilants.

Needless to say, this sort of trampling of political speech has raised the ire of many of our northern neighbors with a fondness for free speech. They have, to put it kindly, called into question the legitimacy and rationale for the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s practices and even existence.
For example, Ezra Levant – himself no stranger to the speech-suppressing ways of the Dominion – roughly a year ago had this to say on his blog site:

I think I was unfair to Lori Andreachuk, the thug on the Alberta “human rights” commission who recently ordered a pastor to publicly renounce his religious faith. Yes, Andreachuk is a bully. Yes, she is a destroyer of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and an underminer of justice. Yes, she is positively un-Canadian in her values. Everything I said about her was true. But I think I left the implication that her fascist decision was hers alone. It wasn’t.

It was a direct result of her boss and political patron, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach…

Levant also helpfully provides Stelmach’s e-mail address for his readers to contact the Albertan Premier

Well, Canada’s empire of speech suppression has struck back, as George Lucas taught us empires are fond of doing. Apparently, all this criticism of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and their ways have led to a – drumroll, please – “chilling” of free speech in Canada.

At this point it seems important to note that, just like Dave Barry, I am not making this up. I’ll let today’s National Post editorial explain the bizarre thinking here:

Monday in Montreal, Jennifer Lynch, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), launched a counterattack against critics who, over the past couple of years, have suggested the commission is out of control and should have its power to investigate alleged hate speech taken away from it…

[Lynch] also claimed that those who accused the CHRC and its provincial counterparts of “chilling” free expression with the prosecutions of writers such as Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant were themselves guilty of “reverse chill.” Harsh criticism of the commissions in the media had discouraged many of their supporters from coming forward to defend their missions, she said. Others who were brave enough to speak out had been subjected to withering personal criticism in opinion pieces and letters to the editor, so much so that “50% of interviewees for an upcoming book on human rights have stated that they feel ‘chilled’ about speaking up.”

The thinking of Lynch is almost beyond my ability to mock.

Regrettably, too many Americans in the wake of the murder of controversial abortion provider George Tiller and the attack on the Holocaust Museum are urging that America similarly enact laws and policies to quell “hate” speech, similar to what Canada does. DailyKos and the Huffington Post, popular political blogs with a left-leaning orientation, are both filled with calls to prosecute people they identify has having “incited” these attacks with “hate” speech, primarily conservative and populist radio or television hosts – Limbaugh, O’Rielly, Beck, and others. There are also demands that anyone making “hateful” comments be banned from broadcasting.

While there is little doubt that some truly disgusting things get said, both on the left and the right, it is important to recognize that stifling free speech is not an acceptable answer. Giving government the power to decide what speech constitutes “hate” speech can only lead to suppression of controversial political speech, an unconscionable infringement of the First Amendment. And that is something that should concern everyone.

Sean Parnell
Center for Competitive Politics