"That's totally offensive?" It's a common enough reaction to reading or seeing or hearing something that you really don't like. It's particularly common when you think the material is racist or sexist or homophobic. And it may well be racist or sexist or homophobic, or even all three. Nothing wrong with saying it.
But, these days, those three little words are sometimes followed by a legal threat. Like a complaint to a human rights commission. And increasingly, it seems, human rights commissions are willing to entertain these complaints. They have the power to do this.
The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits the promotion of hatred on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and other grounds.
Provincial human rights codes also have provisions prohibiting speech that promotes hatred or discrimination.
Several complaints have been brought against Maclean's magazine for publishing an article by Mark Steyn entitled "The Future of Islam." The Canadian Islamic Congress argues that the article subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt, and labels Steyn's article as "flagrantly Islamophobic."
Ezra Levant, the publisher of the Western Standard, has also been hauled before an Alberta human rights commission for having published the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Back in November the Alberta Human Rights Commission found that the Stephen Boissoin, a Christian pastor, was guilty of promoting hatred against gay folks for publishing an anti-gay letter in a local newspaper.
With all of these brouhahas brewing, MP Keith Martin recently introduced a private member's bill to eliminate the hate speech provisions from the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Unfortunately, the first folks to signal their support of his move were a group of white supremacists.
But, defending free speech in Canada is a dangerous business, producing strange — if not totally offensive — bedfellows.
The very core of the civil libertarian's perspective is this: I may hate what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.
And so it is with most of the recent free speech controversies. I don't much care for Mark Steyn's view of the world, and I like Ezra Levant's even less. Sometimes, I think they say stuff that is totally offensive, or totally stupid, or totally racist or totally rightwing drivel. But, the very nature of the right to free speech is that they get to say it. Then, the rest of us get to argue with them, denounce their views, call it drivel — basically, joust with words.
But, instead, now folks go racing to human rights commissions and say, "I'm offended."
In the Maclean's case, the complainants did ask the magazine to publish an article by a recognized member of the Muslim community responding to the inflammatory material. The folks at Maclean's refused, with publisher Ken Whyte allegedly saying that he would rather have the magazine go bankrupt.
Well, I guess it was a good start. The complainants tried to fight words with other words. But, here's the twist: we may all have a right to free speech, but no one has a right to be published in the newspaper. A free press means that the folks who own and publish and edit the press get to back those decisions.
They could have gone to another newspaper. And, they did. Their views were published in the Globe and Mail, and reported across the Canadian media.
But, the reason that they captured the media's attention was because of their human rights complaint.
So, ironically, the best way to get your opinions about offensive speech into the paper is to bring a human rights complaint trying to censor the offensive speech. The hate speech provisions create an incentive to bring a complaint, so that you can actually then attract attention to your claim that something is offensive.
Sorry, but this is crazy. Human rights commissions should not be censors. They should not be deciding just what words are too offensive for the Canadian public to hear. Imagine how gay presses might have fared over the years with these kind of laws, since lots of Canadians think that the stuff that gay people say is, well, totally offensive.
I think I'm with Keith Martin. Let's get those provisions out of the human rights codes, and go back to fighting words with words, even if it's hard, and even if the words are, well, offensive.
Brenda Cossman teaches law at University of Toronto.