OTTAWA, Ont. April 6, 2010 (CCRL) – Two recently-announced court appeals raise serious concerns about agencies of the state intervening against the right to freedom of expression of religious beliefs.
In Alberta, complainant Darren Lund has launched an appeal of December’s Court of Queen’s Bench ruling freeing Stephen Boissoin from a fine and publishing prohibition imposed by the provincial human rights tribunal. The case stems from a 2002 letter written by Mr. Boissoin, a former pastor, in the Red Deer Advocate, expressing opposition to what he considered pro-homosexual “brainwashing” in the public school system. Mr. Lund filed the complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
In Saskatchewan, the province’s human rights tribunal (SHRC) has announced its intention to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Bill Whatcott. The SHRC brought Whatcott before the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal in 2006 over his practice of distributing flyers outlining his opinion about the dangers of abortion and homosexuality. They launched their case following several complaints over a series of flyers that he had delivered in Saskatoon and Regina in 2001 and 2002. The Tribunal found that Whatcott had violated section 14(1)(b) of the province’s human rights code, which prohibits speech that “exposes or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person or class of persons on the basis of a prohibited ground.” He was ordered to pay a $17,500 fine and to cease publicly spreading his beliefs about homosexuality.
The Tribunal decision was upheld in 2007 by the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench, but it was overturned February 25th by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. Justice Darla Hunter ruled that Whatcott had not violated the human rights code, and that the Tribunal decision unjustly limited the freedom of expression. “It is acceptable, in a democracy, for individuals to comment on the morality of another’s behaviour,” she wrote. “Anything that limits debate on the morality of behaviour is an intrusion on the right to freedom of expression.”
Both cases originated with complaints made to human rights tribunals or commissions, and their disposition supports the League’s belief that free speech cases should not be addressed at that level. Among other reasons, human rights codes are not consistent between provinces when it comes to published material, and the process tends to create a disadvantage for defendants since complainants can file without significant cost while defendants must pay for their own legal defense.
The League has repeatedly called for the repeal or significant re-interpretation of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Code, and similar provisions in some provincial codes, which make it an offense to publish online anything likely to expose an identifiable group to hatred or ridicule. The call for repeal has been supported by almost all civil rights and journalist associations in Canada, as well as many politicians. A committee appointed to study the operations of Section 13 reached much the same conclusion. However, the minister of justice has yet to introduce any legislation about it.