Human rights codes do far more good than harm. Even if you agree with Ezra Levant’s decision to publish the controversial cartoons of Mohammed, that’s no reason to call for an end to human rights commissions
Special to Globe and Mail Update
In February, Ezra Levant decided to parachute straight into the eye of the controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
In reprinting the cartoons, the editor of the Western Standard made a political statement that the free speech rights of Canadians should not be held hostage to anti-Western rioters. Reasonable people can quibble about whether it was necessary to reprint the cartoons, yet again, to make his point. Few could argue with the courage in his convictions.
Happily, Mr. Levant has not been met with riot in the streets. Rather, a complaint has been filed against him with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission. That single undetermined complaint has caused many civil libertarians to panic. They use it to justify a call to scrap a human rights system that has protected Canadians from hate propagandists for decades. Before we proclaim Mr. Levant a free speech martyr, we should at least let the Commission do its job.
The complaint against Mr. Levant is an odd one. It was issued by Syed Soharwardy, the founder of a group calling itself the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. The text of the complaint bespeaks more personal and religious offence than group libel. It complains that Mr. Levant called the complainant a “radical” and then had the temerity to defend the publication of the cartoons in “other media.” It describes the publication of the cartoons as hateful against Mr. Soharwardy personally because, he claims, he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
This is not Mr. Soharwardy’s first brush with group defamation. He has published an article describing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “worse than the Holocaust.”
In letters accompanying the complaint, Mr. Soharwardy buttresses his case with Koranic verses and with hate mail that he received before the cartoons were even republished. Although the Commission has not yet investigated, let alone proceeded with this complaint, many in the human rights community have reacted as if Mr. Levant had already been tried, convicted and executed.
The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente wrote that “if these things are crimes, we are all in trouble.” Canadian Civil Liberties Association head, Alan Borovoy, writing in the Calgary Herald, stated that he never envisioned such a complaint when he fought to create the first human rights commission in Ontario. He wants the law to be changed. The National Post’s George Jonas hoped that the actions of Alberta’s “Orwellian commissars” would cause Canadians to rethink human rights commissions.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumours of Mr. Levant’s demise are quite exaggerated. The human rights law under attack has many safeguards. Mr. Levant can argue that the cartoons may offend, even deeply, but they are legal.
In saying this, he can point out that the cartoons may be blasphemous, but our hate speech laws are not aimed at blasphemy. The photographic depiction Piss Christ and the Dung Madonna collage, as well as the novel The Da Vinci Code with its suggestion of Jesus’s sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, have been endlessly reprinted without raising the ire of human rights commissions. Although many of the Danish cartoons profoundly offend Muslims, Mr. Levant can argue that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the landmark case of Canada v. Taylor that human rights law does not deal with “offensiveness.” It only deals with hate propaganda.
That term is defined as expressions that raise the “most ardent and extreme” emotions against an entire group. Statements prohibited by human rights tribunals have included claims that gays should be murdered in bogs, all blacks are rapists, all Muslims are responsible for the terror of 9/11, and that the Jews are a criminal people. Mr. Levant can argue that the cartoons he has reproduced express no such views about all Muslims. Some are anodyne portraits of Mohammed. Even the most troubling cartoon, which depicts the Prophet with a bomb in his turban, is capable of many meanings. Many see it as an illustration of the notion that the Prophet’s religion has been hijacked by radicals, not that all Muslims are terrorists. All that the Commission has done so far is ask Mr. Levant to respond to the complaint and indicate whether he wishes to enter into voluntary conciliation.
As the Commission’s director told Ms. Wente, the Commission’s involvement in the case “doesn’t mean we think there is any merit to it.” Only if the case cannot be resolved, will the Commission investigate and determine whether it merits further action. Nonetheless, many opponents of human rights law object even to the fact that the Commission has the right to investigate. To the contrary, the Commission’s investigative powers are a strength not a weakness of the human rights system. They serve to screen against frivolous or politically motivated complaints, which is how Mr. Levant characterizes this one.
Hate propaganda poses a terrible threat to the world. For centuries it has been a root cause of genocide, slavery and oppression.
Canada’s human rights codes have offered some of our most effective legal tools to combat this ill. They have shut down many websites and telephone lines that have targeted minority groups, including Jews and Muslims.
Surely one uninvestigated complaint is not reason for us to say that the sky is falling.
Marvin Kurz, honorary legal counsel of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, has appeared before human rights tribunals in a number of hate propaganda cases. The views expressed in this article are his own.