SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario
An attempt to have a Canadian panel stifle Mark Steyn poses a threat to American freedom of speech, the conservative columnist says.
The Canadian author told The Washington Times in a telephone interview that the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) agreeing to investigate a Muslim complaint against him opens a new front on threats to Canadians’ press and religious freedom: speech that originates in the United States.
“There are attempts to circumscribe the First Amendment, and certain groups have become very adept at using legal and quasi-legal methods to restrict discussion and what’s discussed,” said Mr. Steyn, who spends half the year living in New Hampshire and writes for several U.S.-based publications.
Under Canadian law, the CHRC investigates purported incidents of hate speech and discrimination and refers some to the quasi-judicial Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which can impose fines or issue restraint orders.
Mr. Steyn became subject to a CHRC investigation last month when the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complained about an excerpt Mr. Steyn had reprinted from “America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It,” Mr. Steyn’s best-seller published by U.S.-based Regnery Publishing.
Mr. Steyn contrasted Islamic values with Western values and spoke of the growing Muslim demographic in the West and the declining birthrate among other Western populations.
“The Muslim world has youth, numbers and global ambitions,” stated Mr. Steyn in an opening summary of what was to follow. “The West is growing old and enfeebled, and lacks the will to rebuff those who would supplant it. It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it.”
The excerpt appeared in the Oct. 23, 2006, edition of Maclean’s, Canada’s most-widely circulated newsweekly, under the title “The Future Belongs to Islam.”
“This article completely misrepresents Canadian Muslims’ values, their community and their religion,” said Faisal Joseph in a CIC press release dated Dec. 4.
Mr. Joseph, CIC’s legal counsel, is a former crown attorney — the Canadian equivalent to district attorney in the U.S.
“We feel that it is imperative to challenge Maclean’s biased portrayal of Muslims in order to protect Canadian multiculturalism and tolerance,” Mr. Joseph said.
Mr. Steyn told The Times that the complaint endangers freedom of the press on both sides of the border, and that both he and Maclean’s are prepared to fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary.
“Basically, everything is fair game if it was to become accepted that the commission has the right to weight the merits of individual articles and the media,” Mr. Steyn said. “The [Canadian and provincial] commissions are a threat to free speech, which is why people on various parts of the spectrum have identified them as the easiest way to shut down an opponent’s speech that one does not like.”
Left unchecked, Mr. Steyn said the CHRC could bring about a relationship between the state and the press similar to that of the former Soviet Union, in which “basically the state regulates the bounds of public expression.”
Citing previous cases, Mr. Steyn noted both that no accused has ever won a case once the CHRC referred it to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and that truth is not a defense when dealing with the commission or the tribunal.
Whereas facts, quotes and statistics may be accurately cited by the author, what the commissions bases its judgment upon is whether the person reading it is offended.
“Offense is in the eye of the beholder,” Mr. Steyn said. “A fact can be accurate, but offensive to some people. The commissions aren’t weighing facts but hurt feelings.”
Another danger raised by Mr. Steyn is that a First Amendment defense does not apply in Canada, despite the article’s being an excerpt from a larger work originally published in the U.S. The Times is among numerous U.S. papers that run Mr. Steyn’s syndicated column.
CHRC spokeswomen Carmen Gregoire and France St. Laurent would not comment on the case when contacted by The Times.
Ms. Gregoire and Ms. St. Laurent both said CHRC is an impartial government body and does not discuss individual cases under investigation.
However, that impartialityis being questioned by Ron Gray, the leader of Canada’s Christian Heritage Party (CHP) and another target of the tribunal.
Mr. Gray, the CHP and the CHP’s electoral association in Skeena, British Columbia, are facing a CHRC complaint after reprinting on the party Web site an article critical of homosexual activism that had appeared in the U.S.-based news site WorldNetDaily — a positive review of a series of legal essays published on the topic by the Virginia-based Regent University Law Review in 2002.
“I felt this information was important for the Canadian public and our party members to have access to because the debate over same-sex ‘marriage’ was raging at the time,” Mr. Gray said.
An Edmonton man named Rob Wells would come across the article four years later and file a complaint against Mr. Gray and the party. Citing previous cases investigated by the CHRC, Mr. Gray said Canada’s human rights commissions are targeting Christians and social conservatives.
“The one case I know where a Christian responded by filing a complaint against an individual who had defamed him, the CHRC refused to hear the complaint,” he said.
The selectivity of the cases referred to the human rights tribunal by the CHRC is also disconcerting to Paul Tuns, editor of the Interim, Canada’s largest pro-life monthly newspaper with a circulation of approximately 34,000.
“There seems to be a trend where Christians and conservatives are always on the losing side,” he said.
Like Mr. Steyn, Mr. Tuns is concerned that a state apparatus is giving its stamp of approval to certain views over those it deems politically incorrect.
“I would be against these tribunals even if they were ruling in favor of our side,” he said. “Essentially, the human rights tribunals are making decisions on what seems offensive to one group or another. Offensiveness is not the same as harmfulness. Offensiveness is subjective, and it’s difficult for the alleged perpetrators to guess what would be offensive to someone.”
While the Interim has thus far avoided any CHRC complaints, its sister publication Catholic Insight, a popular Catholic monthly in Canada, also received news last month that it faced a complaint over articles critical of homosexual activism.
“I think it might be accurate to say that homosexual activists are targeting media outlets that are not in line with their agenda,” said Tony Gosgnach, a spokesman for Catholic Insight.
Two recent examples of the tribunals ruling against Catholics include a Knights of Columbus council in British Columbia that was fined for refusing to rent its hall to a lesbian couple for a same-sex “marriage” ceremony, as well as a Catholic high school in Ontario that prohibited a homosexual student from bringing his male date to the school prom.
Asked whether the CHRC was intentionally targeting religious or socially conservative speech, Ms. Gregoire said the question was “inappropriate,” while Ms. St. Laurent asserted the commission’s “impartiality.”
John Pacheco, a Catholic activist in Ottawa who during the same-sex “marriage” debate organized a 15,000-20,000 person protest on Parliament Hill, said the Steyn case shows the potential scope of Canada’s hate-speech laws and human rights tribunals.
“The human rights tribunals in Canada, both at the federal and provincial levels, were originally established to provide some relief for employment and housing injustices,” he said.
But “if they can bring down popular international commentators like Mark Steyn, what is to become of the rest of us?” said Mr. Pacheco, who is organizing an online petition in support of Mr. Steyn, called Free Mark Steyn.
Kathy Shaidle, a Canadian blogger popular with U.S. audiences, called the CHRC case against Mr. Steyn an extension of the case involving Scott Brockie, the Christian owner of a small printer who was fined thousands of dollars after declining for religious reasons to print a leaflet promoting homosexuality.
“Canada’s human rights commissions have been used to silence, censor and bankrupt conservative Christians for years now, and the Canadian establishment has shrugged, because they don’t care for conservative Christians either,” Miss Shaidle said. “Now that members of said establishments are the ones being hauled into the star chamber, the mainstream media is finally speaking out.”