Mr. Stelmach– tear down this free speech wall!

Calgary Herald… Is the tide of Canadian censorship finally starting to turn?

We are hopeful, though not tempted to complacency.

This week, the Alberta Human Rights Commission cited a string of recent court and commission climb-downs, in the reasons it gave for dismissing a complaint lodged against this newspaper and its corporate companion, the Edmonton Journal.

Naturally, the Herald –which has been very vocal on this issue for many years, if not decades– welcomes the decision.

However, it rests on an interpretation by a human rights commission of its own powers: The situation is thus somewhat comparable to the police investigating allegations of police misbehaviour. So, while it is a good thing that commissions are starting to realize how much they have exceeded the intentions of those who established them, a reduction of their powers must be cemented with new legislation, if free-speech rights are to be properly protected.

The case involving the Herald and the Journal arose from an editorial published in April 2002, which catalogued several allegations of duplicity, manipulation, atrocity and hypocrisy on the part of Palestinian leaders in their dealings with Israel.

At the time, reports of terrorist activity came almost daily, interspersed with the late Yasser Arafat’s protestations that all he wanted was peace: The matter was top of mind, and ripe for public examination. However, Muslim advocates complained that it was “likely to expose to hatred or contempt Palestinian Arabs and Muslims,” though there was no proof of that whatsoever and it was certainly not the intent.

Initially, the AHRC was inclined to agree, its 2004 Investigating Report finding “merit” to the complaint.

However, nearly five years later (and seven years after the original publication) it changed gears. “. . . Although offensive, the editorial does not infringe Section 3 of the Act . . . This is supported by recent case law since the issue of the Investigating Report,” wrote commission director Marie Riddle.

And, what did the new case law say?

Riddle took note of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on a high-profile defamation case in which the defence of fair comment, usually of no interest to human rights commissions, was upheld. It further recognized that debate could be chilled by “actions launched simply for the purpose of intimidation.”

Riddle also referenced Maclean’s Magazine in its notable defence of Mark Steyn’s America Alone excerpt before the B. C. Human Rights Tribunal last year, and that of Hugh Owens’ fight with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission over his publication of Bible verses condemning homosexuality.

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal took a broadly similar line to the BCHRT: “Mere offensiveness alone would not be sufficient for a successful complaint.”

Most particularly, Riddle was informed by the federal human rights tribunal. Earlier this month it decided its methods and philosophy had so far departed from the conciliation model on which it had been founded, that it had ceased to be “a reasonable limit” on speech under the Charter.

She then dismissed the complaint.

It seems much has been won by the determined resistance of free-speech advocates, like this newspaper, to nationwide commission encroachments on a right to criticize people, organizations and governments that goes back in Canada at least to 1835, when Joseph Howe took on a corrupt provincial government, and won.

We salute them all, if not for their opinions in every case, at least in their tenacious defence of their right to publish them–a right that has cost so many of our best and brightest their very lives.

Premier Stelmach, when even your own human rights commission has changed its mind, you must act: Tear down the offensive section of Alberta’s human rights law.

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