A victory for free speech that is no victory at all
He’s been cleared. He’s won. Well kind of, except that in some ways Mark Steyn and Maclean’s Magazine are still losers for having been called to task to explain their writings to a government body in the first place.
For those not familiar with the background to this story, allow me to elaborate. Mark Steyn, the Canadian born, British raised, American living columnist and author, had his work probed by government agencies across the country over claims it was Islamaphobic. The complaints started when Steyn’s book, America Alone, was excerpted by one of his employers, Macleans Magazine. In the offending piece, Steyn posits that the future of Europe belongs to Islam, based on the declining birth rate of old-stock Europeans, in contrast to the higher birth rates of Muslim immigrants.
The piece uses some outrageous quotes, mostly from Muslims themselves, living in Europe or places much closer to the action than Canada’s various human rights tribunals. Based partially on the outrageous quotes and his tone in the article, Steyn and Macleans Magazine had three complaints laid against them with various tribunals claiming not only Islamaphobia but also that Steyn’s work showed a history of other writings that might expose Muslims to hatred and contempt.
Now leaving aside whether or not Steyn is an Islamaphobe or a bigot, this ordeal is one that never should have happened. Beyond certain very strict limits, I don’t believe the government should be telling Steyn or anyone else what they can think or write. This may sound like a radical concept to some, but freedom of expression is enshrined in Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The older, and still in effect, Bill of Rights brought in by Prime Minister Deifenbaker spells it out clearly; freedom of speech and freedom of the press are protected in Canada. Having a government approve or disapprove of what you say should not happen. Should there be limits to free speech? Limited limits, yes, such as libel. You may be free to say I’m a murderer without evidence, but I am free to sue you in court and prove otherwise, even collect damages.
I’ve heard from plenty of my colleagues in the media that they believe the system worked; Steyn and Macleans have been found innocent of all claims, they suffered no harm. Wrong. The process is the punishment in this ordeal. In a society where free speech and a free press is protected, no one should fear a government agency investigating your thoughts and words to see if they are approved.
When Calgary based magazine publisher Ezra Levant was called before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for publishing the Mohammed cartoons alongside an article on the worldwide controversy, a bureaucrat asked him why he published the cartoons and what was the motivation. Levant rightly told the woman on the other side of the table, that as a free man with a constitutional right to free speech, he owed no explanation.
Now I’ve written about this before and it may all seem so remote, especially for readers in the United States. But consider that just like the human rights commissions in Florida, Illinois or Washington, our human rights commissions started out dealing with questions of fairness and discrimination in housing, employment and dealings with government bodies. Eventually, they changed.
Florida, Washington, Illinois or any of the other states operating similar human rights tribunals could easily follow Canada’s path. Well-meaning politicians, bureaucrats and an activist judiciary willing to set limits on America’s First Amendment right to free speech could soon be declaring that some topics are off limits from critique.
Brian Lilley is the Ottawa Bureau Chief for 1010 CFRB Radio in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of MercatorNet.
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