Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MONTREAL GAZETTE: Rights commission threatens our liberty

Rights commission threatens our liberty


The Gazette | Monday, June 29, 2009


The Canadian Human Rights Commission appears to have learned little from its adventures of the last few years. In its latest report to Parliament it stubbornly defends its authority to police the Internet - or any other electronic medium - for opinions that are "likely to" expose people to hatred or contempt.

This is, as we have said previously in this space, an unacceptable assault on free speech.

With frightening eagerness to rein in Canadians' free expression, the commission finds the authority to restrict honest opinion in Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, a notoriously vague bit of legal writing that forbids transmissions "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt." The subjective power of that "likely to" makes everyone vulnerable to bureaucratic whim, malice, or distemper.

The section was designed to protect people - especially members of minority groups - from any kind of hateful telecommunication messages. That was later expanded to include the Internet, and as just about every organization of any size has a Web presence now, that means that the commission can police just about everyone, from newspaper columnists to Christian parsons. Ironically, it could even include the commission itself, which published its report on its website, complete with a verbatim citation from a telephone message it had ruled to be hateful. The horror!

The report does ask Parliament to define hatred and contempt more clearly, which could be an improvement. But the definition the report favours is the woolly-minded one the Supreme Court read into the Human Rights Act 18 years ago. The Supremes ruled that expressions of "unusually strong and deep-felt emotions of detestation, calumny, and vilification" that are "ardent and extreme" are not protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedom. In other words, the commissioners are to judge not just the content of questionable transmissions but the mental state of the transmitters.

The report does make suitable noises about freedom of expression being a fundamental right and the commission not wanting to limit the rough and tumble of democratic debate. But then it says that every citizen has the right "to be treated with equality, dignity and respect," not just by the state but by everyone - a frighteningly vague notion.

The report also asks for an amendment to the act that would allow it to dismiss quickly any complaint it deems trivial or unfounded. That would have saved it the embarrassment of having to rule on complaints against Maclean's magazine columnist Mark Steyn and journalist Ezra Levant.

But it would be far better for Parliament simply to repeal Section 13, and leave the question of hate speech to the criminal courts where it belongs - if it belongs anywhere. If a citizen's liberties are to be threatened, that citizen deserves the full protection of the law.

The commission likes to cite a Supreme Court decision that ruled its speech-limiting powers constitutional. But that decision was simply permissive, not obligatory. A courageous Parliament would ignore it and rein in the commission.