Righteous crusader or civil rights menace?
Richard Warman says he's fighting hate. Critics say free speech is the real victim.
CHARLIE GILLIS | April 9, 2008 |
If an airless room located on the 11th floor of a nondescript building in Ottawa could be considered a stage, this one appeared to be set. Pant-suited lawyers took their chairs at the front. Assorted reporters, bloggers and members of the public endured security pat-downs for a chance to sit in the gallery. Reputed neo-Nazis — normally allergic to the instruments of government control — seemed downright eager to spread limbs for the metal-detecting wands. This, after all, was their long-awaited chance to see a nemesis shamed: Dean Steacy, an investigator from the Canadian Human Rights Commission, was due for a grilling over his apparent habit of pretending to be a white nationalist sympathizer while trolling online for hate-mongers — all before the very tribunal where white supremacists typically answer for their own poisonous rhetoric.
For the sort of people who blame their problems on Jewish cabals and the government commissions empowered to protect them, this session of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal was can't-miss testimony. But something — or rather, someone — was missing. No sooner had the proceedings begun than Paul Fromm, a former supporter of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, rose to bemoan the absence of Richard Warman, the man whose complaint against alleged online hate-monger Marc Lemire had led to today's hearing. "I note for the record that he's been absent from these proceedings for the 20th straight day," said Fromm, whose organization, the Canadian Association for Free Expression, has intervened in the Lemire case. The tribunal's chairman dutifully wrote it down. Lemire's shaven-headed supporters in the gallery grunted their disappointment.
Warman had told me the previous evening he would probably take a pass on this tableau. The evidence about Steacy roaming suspected hate sites while posing as a fellow traveller had been disclosed in written submissions weeks before the session, he'd said, and the question of investigative techniques had little to do with his case against Lemire. Besides which, he had no intention of giving his enemies the satisfaction of confronting him in some sort of scene — as Fromm had once done with pickets and placards outside the commission offices in Ottawa.
Still, it felt a bit like The Tempest without Prospero. For weeks, the lawyer and activist credited with creating a brave new world where human rights investigators oversee online conversations on behalf of right-thinking Canadians had been flying under the radar — a conspicuous absence, given the commission's growing reputation as a bureaucratic Big Brother. Since 2002, Warman has filed more than a dozen complaints under Section 13(1) of the act, which bans any form of electronic communication that is "likely to expose" people to hatred or contempt based on race, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation. He has won 10 of those cases, while two are still pending — a success rate that his supporters say proves his righteousness. If his targets were anything but the worst kind of white supremacists, they reason, why does he win every case?
But to others, the slam-dunk quality to Warman's Section 13 cases are a cause for worry, symbolizing the drift of human rights commissions into the boggy territory of covert investigation and speech control. Those concerns deepened two weeks ago with revelations that, for a time, Warman was acting both as a complainant and an investigator at the commission. Even after he left in 2004, he seemed to enjoy easy access to commission offices, stopping by to chat with staff or get documents printed. "Having delved into it a bit, I frankly can't believe what's been happening behind the scenes," says Keith Martin, a Liberal MP who has tabled a motion for the repeal of Section 13(1). "You have a large number of the complaints about hate speech being filed by one person, and the normal structure within a court, such as the assumption of innocence, don't apply at the tribunal." Of the fact Warman and investigators were going online undercover, Martin says simply: "That's appalling."
His reaction comes on the heels of warnings that the commission has overreached its original mission. A few weeks before the Lemire hearing, Alan Borovoy, one of the architects of rights commissions as we know them in Canada, called for Section 13 to be scrapped, noting its recent use against Maclean's for material that complainants felt was anti-Islamic. "It just never occurred to anybody that this instrument we were struggling to create would be used against the expression of free speech," he said.