Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How feeble is our right of free speech

The prosecution of Maclean's magazine shows how feeble is our right of free speech

By Link Byfield

It had to happen eventually. A national publisher is now being prosecuted for political insensitivity. It marks the latest and most serious escalation of the long, slow war of Canadian governments against free speech.

Last year (Oct. 23, 06) Maclean’s printed a lengthy article entitled “The Future Belongs to Islam.” It was in fact a chapter from the book “America Alone” by Maclean’s columnist Mark Steyn.

The complaint was brought by the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), after being initiated last spring by Muslim law students at York University.

CIC legal counsel Faisal Joseph, a former prosecutor, explained, “When you read that article, it sounds to some people {like} there’s an attack from the ‘Muslim’ world against the ‘non-Muslim’ world. We take real issue with that type of characterization and the implications of it.”

It’s undeniable that Steyn’s chapter – and his whole book – describe such an attack. He sees the western world as being intimidated and demographically overwhelmed by an Islamic culture hostile to western values.

This opinion, the CIC’s Joseph alleges, subjects Canadian Muslims to discrimination, hatred and contempt.

Maclean’s editor Ken Whyte met with the offended Osgoode students last spring, and offered to publish a longish letter from them, even though he had run 27 letters on the subject already, and the story was now five months old. But the students demanded five unedited pages in his magazine, plus an unedited cover picture.

Whyte refused, saying he would sooner see the magazine go bankrupt than surrender responsibility for its content. The CIC has translated this to him saying he’d prefer bankruptcy to journalistic balance.

Human rights law began forty years ago, inflicting itself on defenseless employers and landlords, but has gradually been taking on ever more powerful antagonists. Maclean’s is the most potent yet.

What most people still fail to understand, unfortunately, is that human rights law has nothing to do with civil rights. The traditional freedoms – our centuries-old civil rights – are to own property, assemble peacefully, speak your mind, worship God openly, and associate with people you choose.

Human rights law is quite different. It says that you have a right not to feel excluded or demeaned for who you are, and if you do the state will prosecute the offender and extract compensation. This requires government-appointed commissions to decide which social and racial groups they will protect and which ones they won’t, and where the line lies between free speech and “responsible” free speech as they choose, according to some moving political basis, to define it.

A wise law professor once explained the distinction between the two kinds of law thus: traditional freedoms require governments to leave citizens alone. The new anti-discrimination laws require governments to become ever more intrusive and restrictive.

Or as another wise professor once expressed it, “Freedom of speech is not the right to tell someone good morning. It’s the legal right to tell them to _____ off.”

We may not like talk like that, or opinions like Mark Steyn's. But just because they offend us does not mean governments in a free society should stop them. Governments can no more control public opinion than King Canute could hold back the tide.

Let's hope now that Maclean’s is being hounded, Canadian media will at long last take seriously the threat human rights commissions pose to their own freedom and everyone else’s.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre

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