SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario
Canada’s human rights commissions are a threat to freedom of speech in America, says Ezra Levant, the latest in a long string of conservative writers to be brought before Canada’s quasi-judicial panels for speech about Islam.
But Mr. Levant is not taking it lying down and is using the Internet and his own legal savvy and flair for publicity to put the tribunals themselves on trial before the public, in Canada and elsewhere.
“Although the United States has a very robust First Amendment, Canada and Britain have a common tradition going back to the Magna Carta that brought about some of the freest presses in the world,” Mr. Levant told The Washington Times. “If Canada and the U.K. can be infected, so can America.”
Mr. Levant is the former publisher of the Western Standard, a popular Canadian newsweekly with Conservative Party leanings. He drew the attention of Muslim activists on Feb. 13, 2006, when the Standard republished the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that had fueled protests — some of them violent — throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Canadian law-enforcement officials investigated the publication but declined to press criminal charges against Mr. Levant, who is Jewish.
Syed Soharwardy, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, promptly lodged a complaint against Mr. Levant with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Mr. Levant said that although he finds much of what Mr. Soharwardy says offensive, “I ignore him or debate him. I don’t sue him or ask the police to arrest him, Saudi-style.”
The commission summoned Mr. Levant for a hearing last week. On the morning of the hearing, Mr. Levant responded by republishing the cartoons on his blog, EzraLevant.com.
He also posted his opening address to the commission in which he repeated his charge against Mr. Soharwardy, likened the hearing to an interrogation and described the process employed by Canada’s human rights commissions as “part-Kafka, and part-Stalin.”
The publisher, who also is a lawyer, accused the government body of violating due process to impose state censorship.
He told The Times that “unlike real courts, the tribunal members are not judges (and often not even lawyers); in Alberta, there are no rules of court or rules of evidence; precedent is not followed; there is no set burden of proof; the taxpayer funds the complaints, but the defendant must pay his own costs (even if he wins); and, most importantly, the commissions and tribunals issue rulings that are clearly not in compliance with our constitutional and common law freedoms of expression.”
Mr. Levant buttressed his criticism of the process by videotaping the hearing and uploading excerpts to his blog and to YouTube.com, starting late Friday evening. The eight video excerpts have garnered about 330,000 hits as of late last night.
“My lawyer and I insisted that we be permitted to record the interrogation, for use when we appeal the commission’s decision to a real court,” Mr. Levant wrote on his blog. “The officer allowed the video camera, but asked that we keep the recording confidential.”
The Alberta Human Rights Commission would not discuss the Levant hearing with journalists.
Marie Riddle, the commission’s director, did not return phone calls from The Times.
While Mr. Levant was permitted to bring his wife and attorney into the hearing, he stated on his blog that the commission had barred journalists, observers and the Western Standard’s former editor from the hearing.
The cases against author-columnist Mark Steyn and Mr. Levant differ from previous complaints that led to Canada’s human rights commissions investigating Canadian conservatives.
“In the past, they’ve focused on small, powerless bloggers or other loners without any money or legal representation,” Mr. Levant told the Times, stating that the commissions are now targeting Canada’s mainstream media.
“The Western Standard was conservative, but it was mainstream conservative, analogous to the National Review,” Mr. Levant said. “And now they’re going after Maclean’s magazine, too — which is Canada’s equivalent to Time magazine.”
Mr. Steyn applauded Mr. Levant’s contempt for the panel, saying on his Web page, SteynOnline.com, that the “magnificent performance … has raised the bar for the rest of us ensnared by this grotesque system.”
“He’s absolutely right not to waste time attempting to mitigate his ‘offence,’ and he’s also correct in rejecting this pseudo-court’s jurisdiction over him,” he added.
Connie Fournier agrees with Mr. Levant that Canada’s human rights commissions threaten not only freedom speech in Canada, but the U.S. as well.
Mrs. Fournier was subject to a similar complaint this past summer when the Canadian Human Rights Commission opened an investigation into FreeDominion.com, a conservative Web forum that Mrs. Fournier moderates as the official Canadian sister-site to U.S.-based FreeRepublic. The complaint was withdrawn after gaining the attention of U.S. media outlets, including The Washington Times.
“Americans need to pay attention before implementing similar hate-speech laws,” Mrs. Fournier states. “It’s very dangerous what’s going on here. Nobody is going to want to say anything on a Web site because the chances of someone coming along and being offended is just too great. Nobody is going to want to bear the risk because the chances of being financially ruined are just too great.”