Stop the use of human rights’ commissions in free speech cases

TORONTO, December 31, 2007 – The news in early December that Mark Steyn and Macleans Magazine are the subject of a complaint to the B.C. and federal Human Rights Commissions because of an article the magazine published, excerpted from Mr. Steyn’s book “America Alone”, is a higher-profile example of an ongoing pattern in the use of human rights’ commissions to penalize the expression of unpopular opinions.

The League is concerned about this disturbing trend, since it often involves opinions based on religious beliefs. In several cases, some of which has seen the League participate as an intervenor, attempts have been made to characterize scriptural passages as hate literature. While these commissions and their tribunals have generally been sympathetic to complaints of “offended feelings” brought by homosexual rights activists, those brought by Christians seeking support for their right to freedom of religion or religious expression have been less successful.

In fact, in two recent cases people applying to human rights commissions to have their religious rights respected in freedom of speech issues have been refused. Federal and provincial human rights commissions refused to hear the cases of Susan Comstock and Dave MacDonald, who sought to have their union dues diverted to charitable organizations in protest of the union’s use of their dues for political activism and anti-Catholic activity. In refusing, the commission noted in Mrs. Comstock’s case that “no prohibited ground of discrimination was established.”

The League believes that the continued incursion of human rights’ commissions in matters of peaceable free speech will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. When someone’s words are disagreeable or contentious, the normal give-and-take of human discourse should be all the regulation that peaceable free speech requires.

In some of the cases listed here, the League was involved as an intervenor. Some of the cases involve viewpoints that the League does not share, or would not have expressed in the same way. Nevertheless, we believe the right to the peaceable expression of these opinions should not be in question, and that our human rights’ tribunals should not be turned into a forum for enforcing political correctness.

Here is a sampling of recent cases:

- As noted above, Mark Steyn and Maclean’s magazine for the publisher’s reprinting of a chapter of Steyn’s book “America Alone,” Complaint brought in November by the Canadian Islamic Congress, which said the article subjects Canadian Muslims to discrimination, hatred and contempt.

- Ron Gray, leader of the CHP, brought before the Ontario and Canadian HRCs by Edmonton activist Rob Wells for an article on the party’s website critical of homosexual conduct. Among other things, Mr. Gray was told by a HRC mediator that “freedom of expression is an American concept.”

- Catholic Insight magazine is the subject of a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission due to material on its website critical of homosexual conduct. The passages of articles in question were written in the context of speaking out against the activists who agitated for adding so-called sexual orientation to the Hate Crimes Act in 2003, and the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in 2005.

- Steven Boissoin, a Christian pastor who faces punishment by the Alberta Human Rights Commission for a letter published in the Red Deer Advocate. (Case brought by University of Calgary professor Darren Lund.) The judge claimed a “circumstantial causal connection” could be made between the letter and an attack on a homosexual teenager in that city.

- John Di Cecco, a Kamloops, BC city councilor, fined $1,000 for by the BC Human Rights Tribunal when a complaint was brought in response to comments he made about homosexual conduct.

- Knights of Columbus of Port Coquitlam, BC, fined by the BC Human Rights Tribunal in December, 2005 for how they handled their refusal of the use of their hall for a lesbian “wedding” reception.

- Bishop Fred Henry in 2005 was on the receiving end of a human rights complaint
for articulating the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage in a pastoral letter. (The complaint was later withdrawn after a meeting with the complainants, and substantial expense.)

- In 2002, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ordered the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and Hugh Owens to each pay $1,500 to three complainants because of the publication of an advertisement that quoted Bible verses on homosexuality. Four years later, this was overturned by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal after the court ruled that the message, though offensive, didn’t reach the level of inciting hatred. The League was part of an intervention to protest the labeling of Scriptural passages as hate speech.

- Bill Whatcott, charged with spreading hate against homosexual persons for the distribution of material objecting to an advertisement that ran in Saskatchewan’s largest newspaper for homosexuals, Perceptions, seeking boys for activities that specifically mentioned that their age was “….not so relevant”.  The material distributed by Mr. Whatcott also objected to material promoting “gay” culture and beliefs entering into the Saskatoon Public School System and the University of Saskatchewan. The appeal by Mr. Whatcott to the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench from his conviction and fine of $17,500.00 by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal was denied by the Judgment of Mr. Justice F. Kovatch in a decision received on December 11, 2007.

- In British Columbia, Chris Kempling, a teacher at a public high school, was cited in May 2001 for professional misconduct by the BC College of Teachers (BCCT) for letters published in a local newspaper. As punishment he was suspended from teaching for one month. He appealed his suspension all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which finally refused to hear the appeal in 2006.

When some CBC interviews in 2004 became the basis for a formal reprimand by the Quesnel School District, Kempling complained to the BC Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds that his religious freedom was being infringed, a complaint that the Tribunal rejected in November 2005.

- In 1999, Toronto printer Scott Brockie was ordered by the Ontario commission to pay a Gay activist group $5,000 for refusing to print their letterhead.

The League has refrained from making hate speech complaints to any courts or commissions, even though some of the anti-Catholic content we address, and the remarks directed at us in the course of our work, could certainly be described as demeaning if not downright hateful. In our view, the importance of free speech supersedes whether we agree with what others are saying. That is why we have supported people in their right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, particularly religious expression, in various court and tribunal cases. When we protest anti-Catholic defamation in the media, we do so pointedly, but we have never once said that such content should be illegal. Our hope, rather, is that a spirit of true dialogue will help make defamation rare.   

- Catholic Civil Rights League, December 31, 2007.