OTTAWA, Feb. 13, 2009 (CCRL) – On Monday, Feb. 9, the parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights agreed to consider motions calling for a review of the Canadian Human Rights Act’s Section 13. This is the section giving the Canadian Human Rights Commission the right to regulate “hate speech” appearing on the Internet, which effectively encompasses all publications. The League welcomes the possibility of this review, which could be a first step in strengthening the right to the peaceable expression of opinion based on religious belief.
It is unfortunate that any Committee review will be internal only, and as such will consider only internal government sources. Much more powerful testimony could have come from those who have been forced to defend themselves against charges. There have been too many examples of people and publications forced to defend themselves at their own expense while their accusers face practically no cost.
– Catholic Insight Magazine was the subject of a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission due to material on its website critical of homosexual conduct. (The complaint was dismissed but now is under appeal by the complainant.) 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 fined a total of $7,000 in 2008 and ordered never to speak or write publicly in future about homosexual conduct, after a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission for a letter published in the Red Deer Advocate. (Case brought by University of Calgary professor Darren Lund.) Currently under appeal.
– Ron Gray, leader of the Christian Heritage Party, recently acquitted of charges based on a complaint to 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.”
– 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 (The complaint was later withdrawn after a meeting with the complainants, and substantial expense.)
– Pro-life picketer Bill Whatcott, among other legal challenges was charged by Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission for spreading hate. Convicted and fined $17,500.Conviction upheld on appeal to Court of Queen’s Bench. 2008 Appealed to Court of Appeal, decision pending.
– 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.
– Christian Horizons, an evangelical organization providing group homes for developmentally disabled adults of all faiths, ordered by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2008 to pay a former employee $23,000, undertake sensitivity training for all employees, and eliminate its employee code of conduct. The case stems from a former employee dismissed when she told the organization she was in a lesbian relationship, one of many things prohibited by an employee code of conduct she had signed. Currently under appeal. While not a free speech case, the implications for religious-owned organizations could be considerable.
Two more cases, while not dealing directly with religious freedom, gave Section 13 trend the high profile that it needed to attract attention from the mainstream media.
– 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. The commissions in Ontario and BC declined to hear the charges
– Ezra Levant, former publisher of the Western Standard, faced complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission for publishing controversial cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed in 2006. The charges were dropped but only after considerable expense.
While the League does not necessarily agree with everything these people have said, the expense in time, money and anxiety that these cases have brought them highlight the problems of using a non-judicial tribunal to regulate free speech. Few rights are absolute, but criminal code provisions such as libel and slander laws are the appropriate forum for free speech cases. Such limitation would ensure that complainant and defendant are on a level playing field with respect to costs, and that rules of evidence and procedure would be followed.