Civil Liberties

The Internet Saved My Tongue

How I beat Canada's 'human rights' censors


Early on the morning of February 13, 2006, nearly 40,000 copies of the Western Standard rolled off the presses in Edmonton, Alberta. Tucked inside that week's issue of Canada's only national conservative magazine, on pages 15 and 16, was a story about the international controversy over a Danish newspaper that had printed a dozen satirical cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad. Our article, which was illustrated by eight of the cartoons, would soon trigger a three year government investigation of whether I, as the Western Standard's publisher, had violated the rights of Canadian Muslims by "discriminating" against their religion.

The investigation vividly illustrated how Canada's provincial and national human rights commissions (HRCs), created in the 1970s to police discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services, have been hijacked as weapons against speech that offends members of minority groups. My eventual victory over this censorious assault suggests that Western governments will find it increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet to continue undermining human rights in the name of defending them.

By commissioning the Muhammad cartoons, the Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, was making a point about the West's fear of insulting Islam. A Danish author and longtime leftist activist named Kåre Bluitgen had written a children's book about Muhammad, but because some Muslims consider visual depictions of their prophet taboo, Bluitgen found it difficult to find an illustrator. Jyllands-Posten editors wanted to highlight this Danish culture of self-censorship and show the newspaper's support for freedom of speech by publishing their own cartoons of Muhammad.

A few of the images were critical of radical Islam, but the criticism wasn't any harsher than that routinely heaped on other religions and ideologies in the editorial cartoons of Western newspapers. One showed Muhammad in heaven, saying, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!" as suicide bombers floated up to the clouds. Another depicted Muhammad wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb.

The cartoons were published in September 2005, but they didn't make international news until the next year, when a group of Danish imams went on a world tour to drum up Muslim anger against Denmark. The imams brought three additional cartoons along with the original dozen. Those three additions, which hadn't been published in Denmark or anywhere else, were grotesque, including one showing Muhammad having sex with a dog. They were the imams' own handiwork, added to the bundle in case the Jyllands-Posten efforts didn't achieve the desired response. Up until that moment, the phrase cartoon violence had summoned to mind images no more harmful than Wile E. Coyote fighting the Road Runner. But after the imam tour in the spring of 2006, more than 100 people died in purportedly spontaneous riots against the cartoons. Half a dozen terrorist plots to avenge the artwork were uncovered across Europe. Demagogic governments from Tehran to Damascus seized the opportunity to deflect attention away from their own problems.

Every newspaper and TV station in the Western world covered the story of the riots, but almost none of them showed the original cartoons themselves. The media's self-censorship was based on the same fear exhibited by Denmark's illustrators. As a journalist, I was appalled by this cowardice masquerading as sensitivity. Western Standard editor Kevin Libin and I knew our readers would be interested in this story and would want to see for themselves what all the fuss was about.

As our publication date drew nearer, we couldn't help noticing that no other mainstream publication in Canada was planning to reprint the cartoons. We'd be the first, and possibly only, one. We sent the magazine to our printers on Friday, February 10, for printing over the weekend. The next day, word of the deed somehow leaked. By Sunday our decision had become national news, even though no one except our staff and our printers had seen the spread.

I must have done 100 interviews that week. The first would be particularly memorable. At 7 a.m. on Monday, February 13, while our magazine was being trucked from our printers to the post office, I appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Eye Opener radio show in Calgary. The amiable Jim Brown was the host, and the other guest was Syed Soharwardy. All I knew about Soharwardy at the time was that he was a Pakistani immigrant to Canada who worked for IBM and had a part-time gig as a preacher at a tiny mosque in a northeast Calgary strip mall. Soharwardy had very few followers—about 40 congregants in a city that was home to thousands of Muslims. But he was a big-time media hound, always trolling for interviews while the city's more prominent imams rolled their eyes.

I explained the newsworthiness of the cartoons. But Soharwardy wasn't quite in sync with our Canadian concepts of freedom of the press and the separation of religion and state. He called me a "terrorist" for publishing the cartoons—a bit rich, coming from someone who, I later learned, does the radical Muslim lecture circuit in Saudi Arabia. Then he announced to startled CBC listeners that he was a direct descendant of Muhammad and therefore felt personally offended. I wasn't quite sure what to do with that one, so I kept on message, saying Soharwardy was free to follow the Koran as his law, but we were in Canada, not Saudi Arabia. People like me could publish whatever they liked. The debate degenerated into a shouting match.

With other interviews to get to, I soon put the verbal fracas out of mind. Soharwardy did not. He was accustomed to fawning media treatment, bestowed by politically correct reporters delighted to have a spot of diversity in their news. He wasn't used to facing disagreement or being called a radical. In Pakistan, where Soharwardy had been a student at a madrassah, someone who spoke that way to the imams would have been whipped. In Saudi Arabia, where Soharwardy had lectured at an officially anti-Semitic university, my blasphemy might even have resulted in the loss of my head.

So Soharwardy visited the Calgary Police Service, where he demanded that I be arrested. The police politely explained to him that he wasn't in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan anymore and that police in Canada don't enforce the Koran or get involved in political disputes. Next he filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission (AHRCC). This body was more receptive to the idea that I should be punished for giving offense.

The AHRCC sent me a copy of Soharwardy's complaint, a mishmash of personal braggadocio, Islamic supremacism, and whining, all handwritten in English surprisingly broken for someone who had been living in Canada for 20 years. It was riddled with misspellings, including erroneous renditions of my name and the name of my magazine. But the nature of Soharwardy's thinking still managed to shine through.

"Ezra Lavant [sic] insulted me on air on CBC radio," Soharwardy wrote. "He also said that the hateful cartoons are justified to be published in his magazine Western Standards." He complained that "CBC, CTV and other media" dared to speak with me. Noting that he was "openly the follower and related to Prophet Muhammad," Soharwardy wrote that our publication of the cartoons "have sighted violence, hate and discrimination against my family and me." Such incitement (I'm guessing that's what he meant) would have been quite a feat, given that the magazines hadn't yet landed in any mailboxes and wouldn't be on newsstands for another week.

As proof of his claims, Soharwardy included a raft of email messages he had received, including one that called him "excitable" and "humourless" and told him to "laugh" a little more. Another message said that there "are many fine Muslims out there," but that radical Islam deserved to be mocked. This was the "violence" that Soharwardy faced: ordinary Canadians telling him off.

Soharwardy followed up his original complaint with a detailed list of legal arguments—but not from any Canadian law books. He cited passages from the Koran as his precedent, insisting that "the respect and obedience to Prophet Muhammad is the most basic requirement of Faith." At the end of his letter, he offered both artistic and religious criticism of all eight of our Muhammad images, adding, "I am quite disturbed and mentally tortured by these cartoons." And his demands were clear: "I am expecting a formal apology…from the Western Standard. Please help."

The AHRCC was more than happy to help. The Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Act prohibits publishing anything that "is likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt." The theory was that hurtful words necessarily lead to hurtful deeds, and the vagueness of the law meant it was particularly useful as a tool of political censorship.

I consulted Tom Ross, a Calgary lawyer experienced in dealing with HRC complaints. Ross said there were two ways to respond: We could try to make the problem go away quickly, possibly with a cash payment, an apology, and participation in a reeducation session. Or we could fight like hell. After that initial conversation, we didn't waste any time talking about option number one. I was outraged that a government agency was getting involved with the editorial decisions of our magazine.

The Western Standard was prepared to debate our decision to run the cartoons, but voluntarily, in a process involving our subscribers (who enthusiastically agreed with our decision), our advertisers (who were nervous at first but ultimately supported us), and our distributors (most of whom stood with us and saw strong newsstand sales). In the edition following the one in which the cartoons appeared, we ran an extended letters section, with the entire spectrum of views represented, including a worried mother of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, a Muslim immigrant to Canada who said she wanted to get away from Shariah law, and nutcases who said I published the cartoons only because I was Jewish. That's what a public debate in Canada looks like.

Soharwardy didn't participate. He preferred a Shariah-style solution. Six weeks after we published the cartoons, when members of the public had already chewed the issues over and made up their minds, when the commotion was dying down and we decided to let our extra security staff go, I got around to writing the Western Standard's reply to Soharwardy's complaint. "The complaint is a frivolous and vexatious abuse of process," I began. "It has no basis in fact or Canadian law. It is contrary to Canadian values of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and religious plurality, under which Canadians are free from compulsion to submit to religious edicts. The complaint is an attempt to abuse the power of the state to chill discussion about subjects that are in the public interest. It is also an inappropriate combination of mosque and state, using a secular government agency to enforce a Muslim religious precept, namely the fundamentalist prohibition of the depiction of Mohammed."

I still believe every word of that, but it's a bit embarrassing that I actually thought those principles mattered. As I learned since, the right to not be offended trumps freedom of speech in Alberta. That's the official position of the provincial government, as argued by its lawyer in Lund v. Boissoin, a case in which a Christian pastor was given a lifetime ban prohibiting him from criticizing gay marriage.

"If the [Commission] does not dismiss this complaint," I continued, "the AHRCC will be discredited and its liberal reputation will be brought into disrepute. This complaint perverts the cause of human rights. If the AHRCC allows itself to be used to attack the publication of a good faith debate on these issues, the AHRCC will become a tool of censorship.…The AHRCC will send a message that the state, with its unlimited resources, will not hesitate to interfere with and harass media that discuss controversial topics."

Unfortunately, I got that part right. A year later, in March 2007, Maclean's magazine was hauled before three human rights commissions to answer for its discussion of radical Islam, in the form of an excerpt from Mark Steyn's bestselling book, America Alone. Two years later, the Alberta commission ruled that Rev. Stephen Boissoin, a Christian pastor from Red Deer, may never again preach against gay marriage—or even disparage it in private emails. Needless to say, such gag orders cast a pall over public discussions of these issues.

I also had a sense that fighting the complaint would be costly. "Even an acquittal…is a punishment," I wrote. "The process becomes the penalty." I had no idea, however, that the process would stretch on for three years and cost me more than $100,000. The trouble and expense of such investigations help explain why so many people roll over when faced with a human rights complaint.

Eight months passed.

The AHRCC offered to set up a "conciliation meeting" with Soharwardy and representatives from the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities, which had filed an almost identical complaint. I told the commission there could be only one form of "conciliation" that I would accept: that these complainants reconcile themselves to Canadian values and leave their Saudi-style approach to free speech overseas. The AHRCC's next move was to offer me a plea bargain: It told Tom Ross, my lawyer, that if I agreed to publish an apology in the magazine and pay a few thousand dollars to the complainants, I could walk free. I replied that I would fight the AHRCC and its hijackers all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court before I did that—and even if I lost there, I'd contemplate doing jail time for contempt of court before apologizing.

One year after I had rejected the commission's terms of surrender, it told Ross it was launching a formal investigation. I was to present myself to a "human rights officer" to be interrogated about my decision to print the controversial cartoons. If I refused the AHRCC's "invitation" to be interrogated, its officers, under Section 23 of the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Act, could enter my office and seize any "records and documents, including electronic records and documents, that are or may be relevant to the subject matter of the investigation." Computer hard drives, confidential files, private correspondence, even letters between me and my lawyer could be seized, all without a search warrant. Section 24 of the act allowed AHRCC employees to ask a judge for permission to enter my home and take whatever they liked there, too.

After weeks of haggling over the details, the interrogation was scheduled for Friday, January 11, 2008, nearly two years after we published the cartoons, at my lawyer's office in downtown Calgary. The human rights officer in charge of the investigation— Shirlene McGovern, a bland, middle-aged woman in casual clothes—did not seem intimidating. She arrived smiling and chatty, extending her hand to shake mine. I declined. Then McGovern, who had barred members of the press from the meeting, spotted the video camera we had set up, and she hesitated. She had agreed that I could record the proceedings but hadn't explicitly consented to videotaping. With a shrug, she agreed to the camera. It was a decision she would come to regret.

I had prepared an opening statement. "When the Western Standard magazine printed the Danish cartoons of Muhammad two years ago," I said, "it was the proudest moment of my public life. I would do it again today. In fact, I did do it again today.…I posted the cartoons this morning on my website," It was more refined than telling McGovern to fuck off, but it had the same effect. She was stunned.

"I am here at this government interrogation under protest," I continued. "It is my position that the government has no legal or moral authority to interrogate me or anyone else for publishing these words and pictures. That is a violation of my ancient and inalienable freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and in this case, religious freedom and the separation of mosque and state. It is especially perverted that a bureaucracy calling itself the Alberta Human Rights Commission would be the government agency violating my human rights. So I will now call those bureaucrats 'the commission' or 'the HRC,' since to call the commission a 'human rights commission' is to destroy the meaning of those words."

McGovern rolled her eyes. But I kept going. I declared that "the commission is a joke," comparing it unfavorably with Judge Judy. I quoted Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, who had recently condemned the complaints against me as abusive. I called the AHRCC a violation of 800 years of British common law and 250 years of Canadian law, including our 1960 Bill of Rights and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I even quoted from the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects free speech. "I have no faith in this farcical commission," I concluded. "But I do have faith in the justice and good sense of my fellow Albertans and Canadians. I believe that the better they understand this case, the more shocked they will be."

At the beginning of her interrogation, McGovern said, "I always ask people…what was your intent and purpose of your article?" Always? Just how often does McGovern haul people in for questioning about their politics? That's one of the mysteries about these star chambers; we know only about the cases in which the targets are stubborn enough to fight. According to the HRC's annual reports, the vast majority settle without a hearing. And why did my "purpose and intent" matter? Would the article we ran be legal if I had happy thoughts, but illegal if my thoughts somehow offended the commission's sensibilities?

Toward the end of the meeting, McGovern cavalierly stated, "You're entitled to your opinions, that's for sure." But that just wasn't true, was it? If I had been entitled to my opinions, I wouldn't have been summoned to a 90-minute interrogation by the government on pain of having my office and home searched if I refused. And I wouldn't be standing accused in a human rights proceeding that could end with me being forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars, issue an apology, undergo re-education, and/or refrain from unapproved speech in the future.

When I got home, I watched the video of the interrogation. Then I spent the weekend uploading clips onto the Internet, using the video site YouTube. I emailed a couple of dozen friends, relatives, and colleagues about them. I thought the clips would get 1,000 views, maybe 10,000 at most. But that weekend, my "channel" on YouTube was the fifth-most-watched video site on the Internet. Within 10 days, 400,000 people had seen them.

The resulting media storm reminded me of the initial reaction in February 2006, when we had published the cartoons. But this time it was bigger, and the support I received was more uniform. The issue was no longer whether we should have published the cartoons; it was whether we had the right to do so. Even journalists and pundits who took issue with our decision in 2006 stood firmly with us in 2008.

Had I been charged with hate speech 10 years ago, I could not have fought back as effectively. If all this had happened in 1996 instead of 2006, few would have known anything about my battle. YouTube, which brought my story alive for 600,000 people by the time the traffic died down, debuted only in 2005. Before that, there was no universally surfed repository of current event–themed videos, and bloggers were much less prevalent. And without the credit card donations made possible by PayPal (which was started in 2000), it's unlikely that I could have raised the money to cover my legal expenses.

In short, the Internet saved me. In that sense, my story isn't just about free speech. It's also about the way new technology has leveled the playing field between big government and private citizens.

The Internet may also spell the beginning of the end for the HRCs of the world. In the days after my meeting with McGovern, I began to blog about human rights commissions and free speech, encouraged by my worldwide support. became one of the five most popular political blogs in Canada, according to the statistics on The Internet support, which soon crossed over into the mainstream media, reassured me that I was the "normal" one—that free speech was normal, that resisting government nosiness was normal—and that it was the HRCs and the Syed Soharwardys who were affronts to our Western values.

Ten days after my YouTube videos went up the AHRCC wrote to my lawyer saying that McGovern had quit my case, citing the popular backlash against her. Soharwardy, too, came under scrutiny. He'd always styled himself as the friendly neighborhood imam. But suddenly, with thousands of bloggers jumping down his throat, he was no longer in control of his own media image. Even the local Calgary newspapers, which used to dutifully go to Soharwardy for explanations of Muslim holidays, started asking him tough questions. It wasn't long before the press dug up some of Soharwardy's more outrageous comments, such as his call for all Canadians to live under Shariah and his accusation that Western aid agencies were kidnapping Muslim children.

A few weeks after a disastrous meeting with the editorial board of the Calgary Herald, Soharwardy abandoned his complaint against me, sticking taxpayers with the $500,000 tab for the AHRCC's investigation and leaving me and the Western Standard with $100,000 in expenses. He just walked away, as the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Act permitted him to do, without a penny in penalties or even an apology. A few months later, with Soharwardy out of the picture, the AHRCC quietly snuffed out the piggyback complaint from the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities.

As Soharwardy told CBC's nightly newscast The National, "People were looking at Ezra Levant as a martyr of freedom of his speech…taking this into a different direction that I did not want." No kidding. Soharwardy wanted to use Alberta's Human Rights and Citizenship Commission as a weapon to bully me, a critic of radical Islam who had embarrassed him on CBC radio. And he did bully me in the commission's kangaroo court. But in the court of public opinion he had self-detonated. Within a few months, he left town, telling journalists he was going on a cross country "multifaith" walk against violence.

None of this would have happened had I not videotaped my interrogation and uploaded the results onto YouTube. I was the one who was supposed to crumple under the weight of a politically correct accuser and the AHRCC bureaucrats he coopted. Instead, McGovern quit and Soharwardy abandoned his complaint. For the first time in nearly three years, I felt as if my allies and I might win this fight— not just the narrow legal struggle about publishing a bunch of cartoons but the larger fight for our freedom.

Ezra Levant, former publisher of the Western Standard, is the author of Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights (McClelland & Stewart Ltd.). This article is adapted from the book by permission of the publisher.