Freedom of the press attacked

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The Article

In a flagrant attack on freedom of the press, the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) has filed three human rights complaints against Maclean’s magazine and its editor-in-chief, Kenneth Whyte, accusing them of spreading “hatred and contempt” for Muslims, by publishing an article by Mark Steyn on Oct. 23, 2006, entitled The Future Belongs to Islam.

The article in dispute is an excerpt from Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. Consider the implications: By the logic of the CIC’s attack on Maclean’s magazine, the owners and operators of Canadian libraries and bookstores could also be charged with violating the human rights of Muslims by making not just Steyn’s article but also his entire book widely available to Canadians throughout the country.

In attacking Maclean’s magazine, the CIC is not acting alone. It has the support of the Ontario Federation of Labour. In a statement backing the CIC, OFL executive vice-president Terry Downey said: “We want to make sure there’s dignity and respect for all individuals in the province.”

That the leaders of the CIC and the OFL betray such contempt for freedom of the press is lamentable, but not altogether surprising. It might be supposed, though, that at least the human rights commissioners of Canada—the purported guardians of our historic rights and freedoms—would summarily reject the CIC’s complaints against Maclean’s.

But not so. At a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Faisal Joseph, CIC legal counsel, confirmed that the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal has accepted the CIC’s complaint and scheduled hearings in the case for June 2-6, 2008. Likewise, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has accepted the CIC complaint, while the chronically dithering Ontario Human Rights Commission has yet to decide whether it will pursue the matter or not. What has gone wrong? How could such a gross violation of freedom of the press occur in Canada—a country that used to have one of the best records in the world for respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms?

The problem can be traced to the overweening powers of Canada’s human rights tribunals. Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, underlined the danger last year after the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada filed a human rights complaint against the Western Standard for republishing a set of Danish cartoons that many Muslims found offensive. In an article in the Calgary Herald, Borovoy wrote: “During the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create (human rights) commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech.”

Borovoy recalled that the restrictions on speech in the codes were intended to apply only to communications that fostered discrimination on such bases as employment or housing. Instead, human rights tribunals have adopted such expansive interpretations of these speech restrictions that a newspaper or magazine could get into trouble for publishing even a truthful article about conflict in the Middle East, Bosnia, Rwanda or elsewhere that is likely to expose at least one of the parties to contempt.

Canada’s power-grabbing human rights commissioners evidently have scant regard for the freedoms they suppress or for the original understanding of the codes they are supposed to uphold. Otherwise, the British Columbia tribunal and the Canadian and Ontario human rights commissions would have promptly dismissed the CIC’s complaints against Maclean’s as entirely without merit.

As it is, Maclean’s is standing by its right to freedom of the press. In a forthright statement on the issue, Whyte avowed that he would rather have the magazine go bankrupt than surrender to the CIC’s demand for equal space to respond to Steyn’s lengthy article.

Meanwhile, Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and former campaign manager for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has waded into the controversy. He urges: “All who write and speak in the public domain should rally to Mark Steyn’s defence. If so-called human rights commissions can be used against him, they can be used against anyone who dares to express an idea worth debating.”

Rory Leishman
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