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Letter violated rights code, rules Alberta tribunal

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 on Nov 30, decided 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 in 2002. The penalties the AHRC will impose 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 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 paedophiles, drug dealers and pimps that plague our communities.”

In the ruling the AHRC said there was a “circumstantial connection” 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,” Lund says.

In the course of the hearing, a witness testified that Boissoin knew the teen’s assailants.

The case was originally dismissed 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.

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 were 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 toward educational efforts in Alberta,” he says. “I think a full public apology is also in order. What do you think my chances are of getting one?”

Lund criticizes Toronto-based queer lobby group Egale Canada for opposing his case. Egale issued a press release stating that open debate was 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, 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.

“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 the silencing of dissent, even nonsense like Boissoin’s letter, is the wrong outcome.”

Despite the opposition and vitriol directed his way, 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?”