Arts & Entertainment
3 min

What can Ezra Levant teach us about free speech?

'Censorship can bury social progressives'

BLACK & WHITE. What Levant lacks in nuance, he makes up for in passion. Credit: Gary Campbell/McLelland & Stewart

Gays have spent nearly a half-century fighting censorship in Canada. We fought for the freedom to read novels, watch films and subscribe to the newspapers that reflect us, no matter who said they were objectionable.

The owners of Little Sister’s bookstore took border guards to court for detaining and shredding material they imported from the US. They won only a partial victory in 2000, but the staff remain feisty to this day.

In 1992, Glad Day bookstore went toe to toe the criminal justice system over lesbian porn mag Bad Attitude. Later, they fought the Ontario Film Board’s censors.

In the ’80s, The Body Politic (predecessor to the Xtra chain of newspapers) fought three separate obscenity battles over the freedom to publish articles that upset and offended some.

In other words, we know what a government muzzle feels like. It chafes.

Ezra Levant is well aware of the feeling. In his new book, Shakedown (McClelland & Stewart), Levant makes the case for taking the hate speech clause, section 13, out of Canada’s Human Rights Act and the equivalent provincial legislation.

Levant is best known as the publisher of the now-defunct Western Standard, the Alberta-based Conservative magazine that reprinted the infamous Danish Mohammad cartoons in 2006.

His decision to publish the cartoons led to human rights complaints, most notably at the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission (AHRCC). Shakedown was inspired by that battle, although its narration occupies less than a third of the book.

The rest of the book is his argument for the reform or abolition of Canada’s human rights regime. Along the way, he shows that gays have been excellent defenders of free speech.

Case in point. Preacher Stephen Boissoin was dragged in front of the AHRCC in a case that lasted from 2003 to 2008. The right Reverend was prosecuted for publishing anti-gay material in a Red Deer newspaper.

Levant gives Egale Canada a pat on the back for director Gilles Marchildon’s denunciation of the AHRCC complaint. Here’s Levant:

“Marchildon knows what any liberal activist who has studied history knows: that all progress comes from offending the status quo. From the fight to give women the right to vote, to the black civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the gay movement itself, free speech was the main tool for social change. It had to be: by definition, underdogs don’t have money or political power, only the power of their ideas.”

Meanwhile, he adds that, “once unleashed, censorship can bury social progressives as easily as it can bury Prairie pastors. And Marchildon was farsighted enough to recognize that.”

It’s true. Members of the queer community have taken controversial, progressive and sometimes unpopular positions on pornography, youth sexuality, S/M and public sex, prostitution, bathhouses — and always insisted that their right to express themselves is inalienable.

We took on the haters in the court of public opinion, and for the most part, we won. Our superior arguments (sometimes coming down to “it’s none of your goddamned business”) have trumped the Bible literalists, the psychiatric pathologizers and the rightwing nutters.

Sadly, Egale’s tack has changed under its current executive director, Helen Kennedy, and now the lobby group is in the business of lobbying the government to refuse visas to anti-gay reggae stars like Elephant Man. Alas.

As for Shakedown, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Levant frames the debate as a discussion of free speech. He quotes a litany of groups that favour nixing the hate speech provision from Canada’s human rights laws (there would still be a provision in the criminal code). That list includes the Canadian Association of Journalists, PEN Canada and Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

But Levant’s ultimate prescription isn’t to strike section 13 from the Canadian Human Rights Act. Take note: Levant wants to do away with the commissions altogether.

His argument slides from reforming to abolishing the federal and provincial commissions with distressing ease. From free speech cases to cases that have nothing to do with speech at all, Levant appears to have spent much of his time looking for “freak” human rights decisions.

One of these, disappointingly, in Kimberley Nixon’s human rights complaint against Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR). In an excruciating passage, Levant shows that he hasn’t made a serious attempt to understand transfolk, as evidenced by, for instance, his use of masculine pronouns to refer to her. His treatment of Nixon as a human rights circus act is a disservice to both subject and theme.

Meanwhile, he does little to deal with cases like Connie Heintz, who was forced to leave Christian Horizons after her coworkers discovered she was a lesbian. For Heintz, and others who face discrimination in employment, housing or health care, these commissions are important tools in fighting for justice. The solution must be reform, not abolition.

Levant inscribed my copy of Shakedown with the following words: “To Marcus, someone who knows that we must fight for the expressive freedom of dissidents.”

If only he would stick to that terrain, I would happily endorse his crusade.