If you have been following magazines and blogs for the past year, you are probably aware of the human rights and free speech controversy involving Mark Steyn and Maclean’s. Starting in 2005, Maclean’s ran a series of articles by Steyn and Barbara Amiel which, according to a group of Osgoode Hall law students, cast Muslims in a dangerously negative light. Frustrated, the students asked the magazine to provide space for them to write a 5,000-word rebuttal article. After the Editor-in-Chief refused, the students filed a human rights complaint against the magazine with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
What came next can only be described as a firestorm of controversy in the media. A number of journalists and media outlets cried foul, arguing that Human Rights Commissions were being used to impose political correctness on the media creating a chilling effect on free speech. Former Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant took up the cause, as did a number of editorial boards across the country. The intense media criticism of Human Rights Commissions soon caught the attention of federal politicians, with Liberal MP Keith Martin calling for the repeal of hate speech provisions from federal human rights law. A vicious war has erupted on the blogosphere; several prominent figures in the controversy have received death threats via email and in blog comments. Neo-Nazi websites have openly advocated for the execution Richard Warman and other human rights lawyers.
In this episode of the Law is Cool Podcast, Omar Ha-Redeye attempts to cut through the media spin to find out what Human Rights Commissions really are and how they work. Omar interviewed two experienced human rights lawyers to get their views on the current controversy.
The first is Montreal-based international human rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis. She argues that the media coverage of the Human Rights Commission controversy has been unbalanced. She claims that Canadians are being “lied to” about the role of Human Rights Commissions and the character of freedom of speech in Canadian law. She recently wrote an article in Montreal’s Maisonneuve magazine called “The Controversy Entrepreneurs”. In that article, she seeks to dispel seven “myths” surrounding the controversy, including:
- Free speech is an absolute right.
- Human rights laws were not made to restrict speech.
- Human rights laws only apply to discriminatory conduct, not discriminatory speech.
- Human rights laws do not apply to the media.
- Human Rights Commissions dispense “parallel justice,” “prosecuting” and “convicting” people outside of normal legal channels.
- Human Rights Tribunals are rabid, out-of-control bastions of political correctness with 100% conviction rates.
- Free speech is under attack by frivolous, expensive, time-consuming complaints.
Eliadis deconstructs each of these myths and argues that Human Rights Commissions play a valuable role in the protection of all human rights, including freedom of speech. In her interview with Omar, she notes that it is unfortunate that many involved in this controversy have sought to paint the law students who brought the original complaint with the same brush as radical Islamists. In this sense, she says, an equality-seeking group has become further marginalized by bringing forward its complaint. She notes that the Commissions have characterized Mark Steyn’s writing as inaccurate, fear-mongering, and lacking in objectivity.
Ultimately, Eliadis believes that journalists such as Steyn and Levant who attack Human Rights Commissions are doomed to fail. Since some of the people who support the abolition of these Commissions have links to white supremacy groups, Eliadis believes that any such project will likely fail.
Next, Omar interviewed Donna Seale, former Co-Counsel for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. Seale currently runs a consulting business in Winnipeg that provides educational seminars for employers on human rights issues relating to employment and the workplace. Her blog, generally updated on weekly basis, is clearinghouse of workplace human rights information.
Seale notes that Human Rights Commissions serve in a “gatekeeper” capacity to try to resolve complaints before they proceed to an expensive and time-consuming tribunal process. She believes that the Commissions are valuable because they are less adversarial than tribunals and their goal is to resolve conflicts quickly and amicably between the parties.
Seale also argues that it is a mischaracterization to portray the Commissions as guardians of political correctness that have a chilling effect on speech. Indeed, she claims that hate speech-related cases are extremely exceptional. She says that most of the cases heard by Provincial Human Rights Commissions relate to discrimination in employment, services, and housing. She rejects the argument that Human Rights Commissions should be abolished because they “do no good.”
In Seale’s consulting business, she seeks to help both employers and employees understand their roles and responsibilities in terms of meeting their human rights law obligations in the workplace. She believes that litigation can be avoided if both parties work together to understand their respective roles in terms of human rights.