Thursday, November 18, 2010

The death of free expression - Human rights commissions deter ordinary Canadians from expressing unpopular opinions

“In this season of remembrance, it would be good for us to pause and think about how we can ensure that future generations of Canadians inherit a country with meaningful guarantees of fundamental human rights”


The death of free expression

Human rights commissions deter ordinary Canadians from expressing unpopular opinions


·  Derek James From

·  Sun Nov 14 2010


This time of year we are called to remember the great sacrifices made by generations of young Canadian men and women. Our act of remembering, however, is not intended to glorify the wars fought. Instead, remembering the lives spent should remind us that our freedoms have been purchased at a great price. It is easy for those of us who have never fought or sacrificed for the basic freedoms we enjoy to overlook, to neglect, and to lapse into forgetfulness.

The same is true for our basic human rights. I am not referring to the high-minded and academic human rights that are commonly discussed in our modern dialogue. I am referring to a much more basic, fundamental, and significant cluster of human rights: the freedoms to be self-determining, make your own way in the world, and hold beliefs and opinions without fear of reprisal. These are basic human rights, and where these are lacking, there can be no true freedom. This is easy to forget.

On July 10, 2002, Stephen Boissoin wrote an inflammatory letter to the editor of his local paper. The content of this letter was offensive, but it caused no harm, physical or otherwise.

Boissoin’s letter talked about his perception that there was a “homosexual agenda” at work in society. But his perception was just that: a perception. Since Boissoin’s letter did not produce any physical harm to any identifiable person, it would be easy to assume that Canada’s Charter would prohibit the provincial or federal governments from silencing him. This seems a clear example of what the guarantee of freedom of expression was crafted to protect – the expression of unpopular ethical ideas in a public forum.

Similarly, in 2001 and 2002, William Whatcott distributed flyers to mailboxes in Regina and Saskatoon. The content of these flyers was offensive, but it caused no harm – physical or otherwise. Whatcott’s flyers talked about policy decisions by the Saskatoon Public School Board that he believed promoted homosexuality. But Whatcott was merely expressing an opinion. His flyers harmed no one. It would be easy to think that the Canadian Charter protected Whatcott’s expression.

In both Boissoin’s and Whatcott’s cases, the answer as to whether the Charter protects their free expression is not yet clear. When dragged before their respective provincial human rights commissions, each was ordered to pay damages for expressing their ideas. Both men successfully appealed and got favourable decision in court. But these favourable decisions are now being appealed. Boissoin will soon appear in the Alberta Court of Appeal, and Whatcott will appear in the Supreme Court of Canada in the near future.


Derek James From is a student-at-law at the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which supports the constitutional right of Canadians to freely and publicly express their opinions.

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