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Human Rights Commission rules letter exposed homos to hatred

Will decision stifle free expression?

The Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has ruled that a homophobic letter published in a Red Deer newspaper in 2002 violated the province’s human rights code.

The AHRC ruling, released Nov 29, ruled against Stephen Boissoin and the Concerned Christian Coalition and in favour of Darren Lund, a professor at the University of Alberta, who filed a complaint about the letter in 2002, alleging it discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation.

The penalties the AHRC will impose on Boissoin will be ruled on at a later date.

“I’m really gratified,” says Lund. “It’s a reminder that this should be a safe place to live your life free of discrimination. People have the right to feel safe.”

The letter, which ran in the Red Deer Advocate under the subhead “Homosexual Agenda Wicked,” opposed gay-positive programs in Alberta schools. In it, Boissoin charged that “homosexual rights activists and those that defend them are just as immoral as pedophiles, drug dealers and pimps that plague our communities.”

Lund alleged the letter crossed the line of free speech and incited hatred against queers, leaving young gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual people in central Alberta particularly vulnerable. In his complaint, he pointed to the case of a gay teen in a nearby town who was assaulted two weeks after the letter was published.

“It’s an example of the kind of thing that’s likely to happen when you foster hatred,” he says. In the course of the hearing, a witness testified that Boissoin knew the teen’s assailants, an allegation Boissoin denied.

Lund told the commission that Boissoin’s “extremist terminology demonizes and dehumanizes individual homosexuals and their supporters” and cited the following passages from Boissoin’s letter to support his position:

“My banner has now been raised and war has been declared so as to defend the precious sanctity of our innocent children and youth, that you so eagerly toil, day and night, to consume.

“With me stand the greatest weapons that you have encountered to date —God and the moral majority. Know this, we will defeat you, then heal the damage you have caused.

“Come on people, wake up! It is time to stand together and take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the wickedness that our lethargy has authorized to spawn. Where homosexuality flourishes, all manner of wickedness abounds.”

The commission originally dismissed Lund’s complaint, with the adjudicator ruling that it was the newspaper that should be held at fault, not Boissoin. Lund appealed the case to the AHRC head and it was reinstated.

“I am of the view that the effect of the communication would make it more acceptable to others to manifest hatred against homosexuals,” panel chair Lori Andreachuk ruled last week. “I would also conclude that a reasonable person would consider it more likely than not that this letter exposes members of the target group, being homosexuals, to hatred or contempt.

“I further agree with Dr Lund’s comments that the tone in the letter is militaristic and the letter serves to dehumanize people who are homosexuals by referring to them in degrading, insulting and offensive manners,” Andreachuk added, ruling against Boissoin and the Concerned Christian Coalition.

Lund says he hopes the ruling will make homophobes think twice.

“I hope this will have the effect of reminding them that you can have hateful thoughts but you can’t express them or threaten people’s safety,” he says.

Lund —who is straight, has been married for 20 years and has two teenage children —says he has faced a continual barrage of attacks accusing him of seeking to destroy heterosexual families.

“I’ve got a death threat,” he says. “I’ve been promised a lifetime burning in hell for sodomy. It’s ludicrous that I’m the enemy of the heterosexual family.”

Lund filed an additional complaint with the AHRC during the case after Boissoin posted documents from Lund online. Lund says the documents had been submitted to the AHRC on the understanding they would remain confidential. The AHRC ruled that the documents could be posted, a decision Lund says could deter future complainants.

“It sets a frightening precedent for plaintiffs who might have to post their address in documents,” he says.

Lund says he hopes the AHRC imposes a penalty that can be used for good.

“I hope it’s a reasonable fine that will go towards education efforts in Alberta,” he says. “I think a full public apology is also in order. What do you think chances are of getting one?”

Lund criticizes the queer lobby group Egale Canada for opposing his case. Egale issued a press release stating that open debate is the best method for dealing with homophobia.

“We believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant,” wrote then-Egale executive director Giles Marchildon.

Lund says Boissoin used the Egale release in his final summation.

“Egale undercut me by opposing me,” says Lund. “I don’t understand why they would take that position.”

Pink Triangle Press (PTP), which publishes Xtra West, also opposed Lund in editorials and opinion pieces.

“People may or may not be safer as a result of the ruling, but they certainly will be less free to speak their minds,” says Ken Popert, executive director of PTP. “By supporting this complaint we’d be creating grounds on which someone could take action against us for speaking out against homophobes.”

Popert says that opposing freedom of even offensive speech is a self-defeating strategy for queers. And he says that using safety as an argument can be a double-edged sword.

“If gay people are allowed to invoke safety when it comes to homophobes then homophobes will be allowed to invoke safety when it comes to us,” he says.

“Darren Lund’s heart is in the right place,” concedes Popert. “Lesbian and gay people are lucky to have straight allies who take personal risks to effect change in the face of homophobia. It’s just that outlawing dissent, even nonsense like Boissoin’s, is the wrong outcome.”

Despite the opposition for gay groups and vitriol from social conservatives, Lund says he would do the same thing again.

“I would like to think I would, no matter how the ruling went,” he says. “If I’m doing human rights advocacy as my life’s work, how would it be if I only picked the ones I thought would go smoothly?”

With files from Robin Perelle