National Post editorial board: The Canadian Human Rights Commission's unbalanced view of critics
National Post | June 18, 2009
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. In an address to a conference of other human rights commissioners, an excerpt of which is posted here, Ms. Lynch claimed to welcome debate on the future of human rights legislation no fewer than five times, then proceeded to dismiss anyone who questioned the legitimacy of commissions as unworthy of listening to.
She accused many of her institution’s detractors in “the mainstream media” of clouding the facts about commissions’ roles and tactics in an attempt to discredit them. “Critics of the human rights system are manipulating and misrepresenting information to further a new agenda: one that posits that human rights commissions and tribunals no longer serve a useful purpose.”
But claiming that the commissions have overstepped their original purposes and outlived their usefulness is a legitimate argument. It is clearly one Ms. Lynch disagrees with, but she does not get to be the final arbiter of what is and isn’t acceptable in debates about the commissions’ future.
Still, she can be forgiven for believing she is. The CHRC acts as investigator, prosecutor and judge of complaints of racism and hate speech. Moreover, it gets to decide what constitutes hatefulness in print or the spoken word. No wonder Ms. Lynch cannot understand why she should have to tolerate those who advocate the end of human rights commissions. In her daily working life, she gets to define away those she disagrees with, so why not in the broader public debate on rights and who should protect them?
She 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.”
There is a significant difference, though – one Ms. Lynch seems unwilling to acknowledge – between criticism and prosecution. It is the difference between name-calling and sticks and stones.
Harsh criticism may be unpleasant. Those at risk of being subjected to it may choose to keep their heads down to avoid it. Yet the decision about whether or not to endure it is a personal one. And anyone who wishes to engage in debate over critical public policies – such as the extent of freedom of speech – must be prepared to weather criticism in return for the power to influence our laws.
Contrast such criticism, though, with the chill writers and other public figures feel knowing that if their words offend any minority favoured by a rights commission, the commissioners may, on behalf of the complainant (and at taxpayers’ expense) compel testimony, seize documents, search private offices and impose fines and other penalties. The CHRC, too, has a frighteningly undemocratic 100% conviction rate on hate speech cases. Any so-called “reverse chill” could not possibly hold a candle to such treatment.
Ms. Lynch claims she wants a balanced debate on commissions’ futures. She could start by giving more balanced speeches on the issues herself.