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Speech impediments

But two Canadians win battles against "human-rights" authorities

Speech impediments

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Last June, I commented on a case going forward in our neighbor to the north, where free speech has taken a pounding by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). The case named Maclean's magazine and well-known columnist Mark Steyn as co-defendants, the former for publishing an article from the latter's book, which was accused of inciting hatred against Muslims. As more than one reader has asked about the outcome, it seemed worth following up, especially since the news is (mostly) good.

Shortly after the column appeared, all charges in the Steyn case were dropped. Some credit for that must go to the notoriety of the case; the Maclean's profile in Canada is similar to that of Time in the USA. But an equal share of credit should go to Ezra Levant, Calgary lawyer and erstwhile magazine publisher, who was battling his own accusers in the CHRC "court" (scare quotes necessary because the CHRC is not an arm of the court system and disregards legal protocols).

Three years ago, in his now-defunct Western Standard, Levant reprinted some incendiary anti-Muslim cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper and stirred up riots around the world. That led to a formal complaint against him to the Alberta HRC, which Levant turned into a cause célèbre by means of his blog and widely circulated YouTube videos. He later revealed that the Commission offered him a few thousand dollars and no formal charges if he would give them a page of his magazine to present their case. But Levant decided to stand up to the bullying, and publicity is a weapon he knows how to use. Though accused of grandstanding, he focused a spotlight on the Commission's unsightly activities for over a year. As in the Maclean's case, charges against Levant were quietly dropped-with no apology or offer to reimburse any of his $100,000 legal fees.

But the muscle of these high-profile cases may help shift the CHRC's bulky machinery in reverse. Recently the Canadian Human Rights Act, the law that justifies the Commission, has come under review in Parliament, specifically Section 13.1. The "hate speech" provision bans any speaking or writing which is "likely to expose" an individual or group to contempt-"a hole you could drive a Mack truck through," according to Liberal MP Keith Martin. Martin and Conservative MPs have brought the matter before the Justice Committee: Should Section 13 be rescinded?

Surprising support came from Richard Moon, law professor at the University of Windsor, who was commissioned by the HRC itself to evaluate the law. Professor Moon determined that "hate speech" is not the concern of a free nation's government, unless the speech clearly incites to violence; therefore Section 13 should be struck.

The CHRC still has powerful defenders, but consensus that enough is enough seems to be growing. Ezra Levant is cautiously optimistic: "Momentum is on our side," even though it's halting and tenuous. A little prodding in the right places might make it possible to retool the Human Rights Act. That's good news for the United States.

In general, political correctness in the USA is not a government concern (our Human Rights Commissions don't concern themselves-yet-with hate speech), but Christians on secular college campuses and conservatives in Hollywood know the limits on what they can say and do. A particularly ugly example is the outrage against supporters of Proposition 8 (upholding traditional marriage) in California. To cite just two examples: Scott Eckern, Artistic Director of the Sacramento Music Theater, and Richard Raddon, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, both were forced to resign their positions after being "outed" as contributors to the cause. Many others were harassed, heckled, and threatened.

But Americans don't support this kind of intimidation. Standing one's ground at the right time can help turn the tide, as Ezra Levant and others have shown up north. The battle is far from over, but strategic positions can still be won, and glacial progress is better than none.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to