Civil Liberties

Violating Human Rights to Defend Them


At a time when the U.S. government is often (and often justly) criticized for compromising civil liberties in pursuit of terrorists, New York Times legal writer Adam Liptak reminds us of one respect in which Americans are indisputably freer than other Westerners: They can speak their minds without fear of being prosecuted for offending people. In countries such as Canada, France, England, Germany, and the Netherlands, by contrast, freedom of speech can be overriden in the name of equality and multiculturalism. Mark Steyn, the Canadian writer accused of violating British Columbia's hate speech law by saying unnice things about Islam in Maclean's, tells Liptak:

What we're learning here is really the bedrock difference between the United States and the countries that are in a broad sense its legal cousins. Western governments are becoming increasingly comfortable with the regulation of opinion. The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world.

In hearings before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, the lawyer representing Maclean's noted that the province's law gives writers accused of hurting people's feelings little recourse:

Innocent intent is not a defense. Nor is truth. Nor is fair comment on true facts. Publication in the public interest and for the public benefit is not a defense. Opinion expressed in good faith is not a defense. Responsible journalism is not a defense.

An attorney with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union (which is siding with Maclean's) explains the Canadian attitude this way:

Canadians do not have a cast-iron stomach for offensive speech. We don't subscribe to a marketplace of ideas. Americans as a whole are more tough-minded and more prepared for verbal combat.

In the face of Canada's enforced niceness, it is refreshing to hear someone defend the principle that people should not have to justify their opinions to the government, period. Ezra Levant, another Canadian journalist who faced a human rights complaint (since retracted) for offending Muslims, put it this way during an encounter with an inquisitor from the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission:

I reserve maximum freedom to be maximally offensive, to hurt feelings as I like….The only thing I have to say to the government about why I published [the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons] is because it's my bloody right to do so.

That's from my February column about Canada's human rights tribunals. Last week I noted that the French government, which is so keen to defend the country's secular and feminist values that it's prepared to violate Muslims' rights to freedom of religion and freedom of contract, nevertheless defends their "right" not to be offended. I should have mentioned a recent example cited by Liptak (and noted by our own Michael Moynihan): "Earlier this month, the actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, was fined $23,000 in France for provoking racial hatred by criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep."

Addendum: As Robert notes in the comments, the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission continues to investigate Levant for reprinting the Muhammad cartoons in The Western Standard. Although Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, withdrew his complaint last winter, Levant reports that the commission is still considering a similar complaint from Yasmeen Nizam of of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities. You can keep up with the case at Levant's blog. Information about Mark Steyn's speech-related legal troubles is available here.