27 Sep 2011 Human Rights Laws are Eroding our Democracy
By John Carpay Should a man be forced to pay $17,500 to four individuals who felt offended by the flyers he distributed? The Supreme Court of Canada will decide this question in October, when it hears the case of Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission versus William Whatcott.
In 2001 and 2002, Whatcott peacefully distributed flyers in Regina and Saskatoon.
His flyers expressed opposition to teaching children in public schools about homosexuality, and also expressed, in polemical language, his religious objections to homosexual behaviour.
When four people complained that their feelings were hurt by the flyers, Whatcott was prosecuted under Saskatchewan’s “human rights” law, ordered to pay $17,500 to the complainants and ordered to refrain from distributing the same or similar flyers.
Alberta’s human rights legislation is similar to Saskatchewan’s, and has resulted in the prosecution of Ezra Levant for publishing the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in the former Western Standard magazine, the prosecution of Rev. Stephen Boissoin over a letter to the editor in the Red Deer Advocate, and the prosecution of Catholic Bishop Fred Henry for articulating his church’s position against same-sex marriage.
The arrogance of the censors is the common element in all of these human rights prosecutions. The censors who want to shut down other people’s speech think that their own opinions are not just opinions, but absolute truth, which therefore entitles the censors to silence those who disagree. But John Stuart Mill warned us in his 1859 essay On Liberty: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
Whatcott argues that some forms of sexual conduct are unhealthy, unnatural and immoral, and therefore should not be portrayed in a positive light to schoolchildren. Many Canadians would agree with him. The human rights commission believes that all sexual behaviour between consenting adults is inherently good, and that criticizing some sexual practices is an attack on the dignity and worth of people who engage in them.
Religious teachings against adultery, fornication, common-law relationships and homosexual behaviour run afoul of human rights codes because some listeners perceive the teachings as discriminatory or hateful. The Whatcott case highlights the direct conflict between religious freedom and restrictions on “discriminatory” speech in human rights legislation.
Beliefs about what is – and is not – morally acceptable sexual conduct differ from age to age, and from culture to culture. As Mill explained in his essay: “Ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages.”
But Canada’s human rights commissions are so certain of their own opinions that they seek to silence opposing views. As Mill put it: “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”
Not only do human rights prosecutions violate the free speech rights of Whatcott and others, the prosecution of politically incorrect speech also robs Canadians of the benefit of debate and discussion, which is the cornerstone of democracy.
Our civilization’s tradition of freedom of speech has facilitated artistic, literary, religious, philosophical, economic and political achievements.
Democracy depends on open discussion, vigorous debate and the marketplace of ideas. Human rights legislation undermines democracy by chilling free speech.
The Whatcott case provides a unique opportunity for the Supreme Court to reject the arrogance of the censors, and affirm the importance of free speech to democracy, by invalidating the sections of human rights legislation that restrict free speech.
Unfortunately, the Alberta government has chosen to intervene in the Whatcott case by sending lawyers to Ottawa in October to argue in favour of these laws, which facilitate human rights prosecutions of politically incorrect speech.
Alberta is devoting thousands of tax dollars to urging the Supreme Court to uphold the right of government censors to prosecute politically incorrect speech.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is important. However, if the court accepts the arguments of Alberta and other interveners, and rules against free speech, nothing stops our elected representatives from repealing these laws.
John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is supporting Whatcott’s free speech rights before the Supreme Court of Canada. This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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