In Defense of Free Speech…
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On June 28 2008, the Canadian Human Rights commission dismissed the complaint against Maclean’s magazine (Rogers Media) concerning an article by Mark Steyn, and rightly so. (The complainants held that the article, among others, established a pattern of discrimination, and following repeatedly rebuffed attempts to respond in Maclean’s magazine, felt compelled to bring further action).
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As many of you are aware, one article, “The Future Belongs to Islam”, is an opinion piece in which Steyn employs demographic information to support his opinion that the future of the Western world is in peril/doubt because of the spread of Islam.
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While I am not a fan of Mark Steyn’s “neoconservative” ideology, as a self-described left-of-center civil libertarian I am certainly a fan of freedom of expression. Even if you do not agree with his arguments, he should have the right to express them without remaining worryingly susceptible to the retributive power of the state.
In fact, if it is held necessary that a body is to rule on the acceptability of certain speech, in order to protect vulnerable groups, the bar should be set exceedingly high. And according to previous rulings, the Supreme Court agrees. From the recent Maclean’s decision:
“The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Taylor,  3 S.C.R. 892 that this legally prescribed limitation of fundamental Charter rights [Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act] was reasonable and justifiable, but warned that caution and restraint would be required in the application of the section so that the limitation on free speech would be minimized to the greatest possible extent.”
“The guarantee of freedom of expression is not unduly impaired by s. 13(1). The section is not overbroad or excessively vague. Its terms, in particular the phrase “hatred or contempt”, are sufficiently precise and narrow to limit its impact to those expressive activities which are repugnant to Parliament’s objective. The phrase “hatred or contempt” in the context of s. 13(1) refers only to unusually strong and deep‑felt emotions of detestation, calumny and vilification…”
The test was whether Steyn’s writings were so extreme and malicious in nature as to elicit hatred or contempt against the subjects:
“The court interpreted ‘hatred’ to mean a feeling of extreme ill-will that allows for no redeeming qualities in the person towards whom it is directed while ‘contempt’ “encompassed looking down upon or treating as inferior the object of one’s feelings.”
In an earlier related case referred to in the decision, Warman v. Kouba, it is made clear as to what type of material is considered to warrant intervention and censorship. Steyn’s writings certainly do not meet this benchmark. Hence, the commission concluded that the views expressed in the article:
“when considered as a whole and in context, are not of an extreme nature, as defined by the Supreme Court.”
A decision is pending from the BC commission.