Civil Liberties

Mandatory Niceness

'Human rights' in Canada


In January an officer of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission interrogated the Canadian journalist Ezra Levant about his decision to reprint the notorious Muhammad cartoons that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Levant, the former publisher of the Western Standard, did not try to ingratiate himself. He called the commission "a sick joke" and dared the "thug" across the table to recommend that he face a hearing for offending Muslims.

Levant wanted to be convicted, since that would give him a chance to challenge the censorship that Canadian human rights commissions practice in the guise of fighting discrimination. "I do not want to be excused from this complaint because I was reasonable," he told the officer. "It is not the government's authority to tell me whether or not I'm reasonable." That position has attracted broad support in Canada, where editorialists, columnists, activists, and legislators from across the political spectrum have criticized the commissions for threatening freedom of speech.

The national and regional commissions were established in the 1970s to vet complaints about illegal discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services. But many of them have broad, ambiguous legal mandates that can be used to target controversial speech. Alberta's Human Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Act, for example, prohibits publishing anything that "is likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt."

Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, claimed Levant did that by running the Muhammad cartoons. "Publishing of cartoons in the Western Standards [sic] is in fact spreading hate against me," Soharwardy scrawled on a complaint form he submitted to the commission in February 2006. He also complained that "Mr. Ezra Levant insulted me" when the two debated the cartoon controversy on CBC Radio. Until mid-February, when he announced that he planned to withdraw his complaint, Soharwardy was demanding an apology. Human rights commissions can impose fines and gag orders as well.

Meanwhile, the Canadian, Ontario, and British Columbia human rights commissions are considering similar complaints against Maclean's magazine and the journalist Mark Steyn over an October 2006 article adapted from Steyn's book America Alone. The Canadian Islamic Congress claims Steyn "subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt" and harms their "sense of dignity and self-worth" by worrying about high Muslim birth rates. Levant notes that even if a complaint is dismissed, responding to it requires "thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees" and "an enormous amount of time," which encourages journalists to steer clear of touchy subjects.