Perhaps you’ve heard about the Ezra Levant affair. Ezra Levant was the publisher of the now defunct Canadian magazine Western Standard, which was a politically-oriented news magazine, analogous to the National Review.
In 2006, Ezra’s magazine republished the Danish cartoons of Mohammed with an accompanying article about the Muslim riots that followed. It argued that journalists should not censor themselves out of fear of violence from a radical Muslim minority, and chastised media that refused to exercise their free speech rights on those grounds.
Subsequently, the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities (“ECMC”) filed a complaint against the Western Standard with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. After passage of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977, the Canadian Human Rights Commissions and the Human Rights Tribunals were established for the purpose of prohibiting discrimination and guaranteeing equal opportunity for all. The commissions investigate each complaint and determine whether there are legitimate grounds upon which the case should go to trial at a tribunal.
The Act reads in part:
section 12: “No person shall publish, issue or display, or cause to be published, issued or displayed before the public any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation that indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate against a person or a class of persons, or
section 13: “… is likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt [because of race, religious beliefs, etc. …].”
No actual harm is required to prove one’s case. No actual intent to foster hatred is required. The only requirement is that the communication is “likely….to expose” an individual or group to hatred. And unlike with U.S. defamation laws, truth is not a defense. It is no wonder that the tribunals have a 100 percent conviction rate for section 13 cases.
The EDMC’s complaint alleged that the Western Standard’s publication of the Mohammed cartoons was “anti-Islamic, racist and reproduced for the purpose of inciting hatred against the Prophet and Muslims.” It further claimed that “the republication perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslims.”
During Ezra’s hearing with the commission, he was asked what his intent was when he published the cartoons. Visibly upset, he insisted that his magazine should be able to exercise unbridled free speech without regard to intent. With provocative statements, he practically begged the commission to convict him, so that he could bring the case to a “real court” and destroy the credibility of the Human Rights Commissions altogether. Ezra’s legal written response to the complaint explained that the article and the cartoons merely constituted objective news published in a news magazine.
On July 29, 2008, the Human Rights Commission (“HRC”) issued a report on its investigation, and ECMC’s complaint was dismissed. The commission ruled that in balancing free speech rights against the laws that prohibit discrimination, the Western Standard’s publication of the cartoons, “in its full context” did not warrant a trial. Yasmeen Nizam, a civil litigation attorney and an ECMC director, disagreed. She believed that Western Standard should have been brought to trial “regardless of the context.” As she stated, the goal in filing the complaint was “to educate people” on the increased “risk” of discrimination against Muslims in a post-9/11 world.
In the meantime, the HRC’s investigation of the Western Standard article was completed to the tune of 500,000 dollars in taxpayers’ money, and 100,000 dollars to Ezra and his magazine. Had the complaint been filed in a Canadian civil court, the loser would have been required to pay Ezra’s attorney’s fees. But in HRC cases, the complainant doesn’t even have to pay for his own attorney’s fees. The investigation is conducted at taxpayer expense. Had the complaint been filed in a Canadian criminal court, charging the magazine with criminal incitement of hatred, then Ezra would have been entitled to due process and a speedy trial. Instead, he was dragged through the mud at the Alberta’s Human Rights Commission for 900 days, at the mercy of a bunch of bureaucrats.
Currently, there are fourteen Canadian Human Rights Commissions, employing 1000 people, with a budget of 200 million dollars annually. Together, they function as a parallel court system, often at direct odds with laws administered through the Canadian civil and criminal courts. While the establishment of the Human Rights Commissions and Tribunals may have started out with good intentions, over time they have become so extreme that they regularly side with radical Islamists. In a crusade to stamp out offensive language, they stifle free speech. Additionally, the legal fees for respondents can be astronomical. When they win, their speech constitutes exorbitantly expensive speech, not free speech. Soft jihadists purposely use these nuisance suits as lawfare to shut people up and prevent them from voicing their opinions. The process is the punishment. As Ezra protested: “[t]he process I was put through is a warning to journalists who would defy radical Islam.” In effect, the commissions judge both speech and thought. Worse, they preclude open political debate about the nature of radical Islam and the west’s enemy in the war on terror.
At first blush, the dismissal of ECMC’s complaint against the Western Standard might seem like a win for free speech rights. But it’s not quite the good news it appears to be. As Ezra himself so astutely pointed out, it merely means that in the process of government censorship, the Alberta Human Rights Commission approved of his article. And that should send a chill down everyone’s spine.