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Halifax debates free speech and human rights

Attendees take aim at human rights commissions

“As much as I like you as a person, I think you’re a censor,” said Derek Rodgers to one of the speakers at an Oct 30 debate on free speech and human rights.

Over 100 people gathered at Halifax’s St Mary’s University for an event called Human Rights and Free Speech: Have Commissions or the Media Gone Too Far? The debate was organized by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs (CCEPA), in light of increasing media attention on human rights commissions.

The Steven Boissoin case — the pastor from Alberta who was taken to the human rights commission by a professor for a homophobic letter to the editor — begs a key question in this debate: Do commissions further human rights by penalizing hate speech or suppress them by limiting communication?

“As a gay person, I find some of the things Reverend Steven Boissoin said offensive, but the correct response is not to shut him down,” said Rodgers, a first-year Dalhousie University student. “The correct response is to have an open and public airing of the views however offensive they might be.”

Human rights commissions exist in each province to uphold the Canadian Human Rights Act. A commission takes complaints and screens them for validity. If they violate the act, they can be dealt with two ways: through an informal settlement between the parties or through a public hearing held by a tribunal.

Supporters of commissions say they provide a less daunting alternative to taking hate speech before the state. Others say they serve no purpose and actually push back human rights by imposing limits on free speech.

“Who benefited in the Steven Boissoin case?” asked Mark Mercer, a professor of philosophy at St Mary’s University who defended total freedom of speech. “People not speaking their minds is not the same as people tolerating others. Their attitudes don’t change.”

Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal-based human rights lawyer said laws around freedom of speech exist to prevent extreme cases where people’s rights are being infringed upon, not so people can complain when they feel offended.

“I hate my friends when it comes to freedom of expression,” said Dan Leger, director of news content for Halifax’s Chronicle Herald. “But I could not function as editor of a newspaper without it.” Leger said freedom of speech allows him to publish opinionated columns and cartoons that challenge the status quo. He’s currently dealing with a human rights complaint after Herald cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon was accused of offending Muslims in his depiction of Cheryfa MacAulay Jamal, whose husband was arrested in 2006 in an anti-terrorism raid.

For Krista Daley, the director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, MacKinnon’s case exemplifies why the commission is in place. “You don’t want to make a journalist a criminal,” she said. “Commissions help by dealing with smaller issues. A tribunal is meant to be more efficient, more effective and a grassroots type of justice system.”

As moderator of the event, Kevin Kindred, a Halifax lawyer and chair of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project (NSRAP) had his work cut out for him. He concluded the debate with the statement, “I think we all agree there’s at least some limits to free speech but that it’s inherently valuable.”

Despite imposing time limits on impassioned debaters and audience members he says the hardest part of the night was remaining impartial. “As a gay right activist, I’ve chosen to take the path that maximizes freedom,” he said after the debate. In his opinion, trying Boissoin in front of a tribunal is not in line with the goals of the gay community. “My view is to fight offensive speech with other speech.”