Steyn and Levant on free speech, and what MPs are thinking of doing about it

The free speech advocates testify before the House of Commons Justice Committee

Steyn and Levant on free speech, and what MPs are thinking of doing about itA tandem appearance by Maclean’s columnist Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, former publisher of the Western Standard magazine, made for an unusually entertaining first day of hearings at a parliamentary committee probing the controversial powers of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Steyn and Levant were called as witnesses by the House of Commons Justice Committee because they have both clashed with the commission and emerged as impassioned advocates for the repeal of Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, which gives the commission the authority to investigate complaints about hate speech.

They put on the anticipated lively show as the committee launched deliberations on Section 13. At one point, Steyn called the human rights commission’s investigators “psychologically disturbed.” Levant catalogued allegations of outrageous entrapment techniques he says have been used by the commission in an “out of control” hunt for hate-speakers to drag before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

But if the two media-star witnesses were the focus of attention in Parliament’s Railway Committee Room, the inclinations of mostly anonymous MPs sitting on the committee could end up being the real story as its work progresses.

MPs from both the government and opposition sides told Maclean’s they are serious about reforming Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Brent Rathgeber, the Tory MP representing the Edmonton-St. Albert riding, a lawyer elected for the first time last fall, said the time is right for the act to be amended.

“I suspect that a groundswell of caucus support could likely move this matter onto the government agenda,” Rathgeber said after the appearance by Steyn and Levant.

The government’s willingness to move on the issue has been far from clear in the past. Early this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he had no plans to amend the act. Even if Rathgeber is right that Harper, and perhaps Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, would now be prepared to take action if enough MPs pushed them, there’s still the question of where the opposition parties stand.

“Bear in mind,” Rathgeber said, “we live in the reality of a minority parliament and I’m not sure MPs on the other side of the table would agree.”

The tenor of questions from Liberal, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs certainly made it sound like they would not be easily swayed by the arguments from Levant and Steyn for an outright repeal of Section 13. However, Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh—a former British Columbia attorney general and longtime human rights activist whose voice counts on this issue—said outside the committee room that he is “absolutely” in favour of changing Section 13, though probably not abolishing it.

In fact, even the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which adjudicates on cases referred to it by the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s investigators, has recently turned on Section 13. In a Sept. 2 decision, tribunal member Anthanasios Hadjis, said the section violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Levant said he now fully expects that decision to be fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada on appeals. “But we shouldn’t have to wait ten years for the Supreme Court’s decision,” he added, arguing it’s time for Parliament to take a stand.

The tribunal’s rejection of Section 13 in some ways echoed a report on the issue that the commission itself paid University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon to write last year. Moon concluded that “censorship of hate speech should be limited to speech that explicitly or implicitly threatens, justifies or advocates violence against the members of an identifiable group.” That sort of ban in extreme cases belongs in the Criminal Code, he said, but not in human rights law. So he called for Section 13 to be repealed.

“Professor Moon is certainly no fan or friend of either of us,” Steyn told the committee. “But he found, as a fair-minded man, when you look at Section 13 in the cold light of day, it’s completely indefensible.”

Maclean’s has also called for Parliament to abolish Section 13. The magazine took that position after the commission pursued a complaint brought against it by the Canadian Islamic Congress, over the article “The Future Belongs to Islam,” an excerpt from Steyn’s book America Alone. The commission ultimately dismissed the complaint, but only after the case had drawn unprecedented attention to its controversial powers to police supposed hate speech.

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