Absolute Princes and the Alberta Human Rights Commission

The decision by the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission not to proceed with the 900-day-old complaint against the now defunct Western Standard magazine was the proper decision. But that is about the only praise the commission, or the provincial government and its ill-advised and poorly written human rights legislation, should receive.

For those in a nocturnal state since March 2006, when the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities launched a complaint against the Western Standard, the Muslim group took offence at the magazine’s decision to reprint the now famous Danish cartoons first published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper earlier that year.

Those cartoons, including one in which the Prophet Muhammed tells suicide bombers to stop as there are no more virgins to give as a reward, were no doubt offensive to many in the Muslim community.

But, unsurprisingly, as with many bureaucrats in human rights commissions across Canada, the southern director of Alberta’s commission, Pardeep Gundara, chose to editorialize rather than simply dismiss the complaint without add-on commentary. In his decision, Gundara writes that the cartoons were “stereotypical, negative and offensive.” However, he dismissed the complaint because “the stereotypical nature of the cartoons is muted by the accompanying article which focuses on free speech.”

Perhaps the cartoons are “stereotypical, negative and offensive.” Perhaps they are not. That judgment will vary and depends on who you ask.

The fact is Western society has a long history of diverse views on matters of religion, and plenty of acid-tongued critics about the same. H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore newspaperman and columnist in the early 20th century, was famously acerbic about Christianity. Today, atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are similarly critical. They are rarely polite about their contempt for all religions, and whether the version is fundamentalist or liberal.

Such critics (and cartoonists whose very existence depends in the ability to mock and point out the naked emperors) need the freedom to bash religion (or anything else), just as theists should have the freedom to engage in similar rhetoric, no matter the feelings of adherents on either side. That’s critical, given that freedom of expression is the core freedom foundational to all the others.

As for Gundara, he is entitled to his opinion and can express it in any public forum after his work day is over. But his duty is to accept or reject complaints based on the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, not to give his personal opinion on taxpayer time and on the taxpayer dime, especially given that he dismissed the complaint. His decision to offer his personal views in the guise of official duties reminds me of John Stuart Mill’s critique of absolute princes who feel free to pronounce on all matters.

Which leads to the core problem in this affair — the Act itself — and two necessary remedies: First, the section of the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, to which the commission is subject, must be re-written.

In that Act, one subsection forbids publishing anything “likely to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt.”

That subsection must be removed. All sorts of people from politicians to journalists to used car dealers are the subject to hatred or contempt. The problem is not just that what constitutes hatred or contempt is often subjective, as are those who are punished, but that unless such expressions include advocacy of violence, the state has no business interfering in opinions — even tart, nasty, or objectionable ones. Legitimate human rights advocacy has lately been undermined by the triumph of the “right” not to have injured feelings. That needs to change.

The second remedy is that costs should be borne by the complainants if unsuccessful. In the case of complaints against the Western Standard (one withdrawn before this ruling), taxpayers spent $500,000 while the magazine and its publisher, Ezra Levant, spent $100,000. If complainants were subject to costs, they might have been less eager in their anti-freedom complaint.

At base, this dispute is about the Western tradition of freedom of expression versus a fundamentalist orientation in which one’s God cannot be criticized, mocked, or displayed in a manner unbecoming to devout adherents. However offended some Muslims, Christians, Jews or others may feel on occasion, the proper response to verbal and visual hurt is to boycott or to debate, but never to ban, prosecute and gag. I’ll side with the longstanding Western tradition.