Last month, when an officer of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission interrogated him about his decision to reprint the notorious Muhammad cartoons that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Ezra Levant did not try to ingratiate himself. Levant, former publisher of the news magazine the Western Standard, called the commission "a sick joke," compared it unfavorably with Judge Judy and dared the "thug" across the table to recommend that he face a hearing for publishing material that offended Muslims.
That way, Levant explained, he could be convicted, which would give him a chance to challenge the censorship that Canadian human-rights commissions practice in the name of fighting discrimination. "I do not want to be excused from this complaint because I was reasonable," he said. "It is not the government's authority to tell me whether or not I'm reasonable."
Legally, that remains to be seen. Canada's national and provincial human-rights commissions were established in the 1970s to vet complaints about discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services. But many of them have broad legal mandates that can be used to attack freedom of speech. Alberta's Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, for example, prohibits publishing anything that "is likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt."
Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, claims Levant did that by running the Muhammad cartoons. "Publishing of cartoons in the Western Standards (sic) is in fact spreading hate against me," Soharwady scrawled on a complaint form he submitted to the commission in February 2006. He also complained that "Mr. Ezra Levant insulted me" when the two debated the cartoon controversy on CBC Radio. Soharwardy is demanding an apology. The commission can impose fines and gag orders as well.
Meanwhile, the Canadian, Ontario and British Columbia human rights commissions are considering similar complaints against Maclean's magazine and the journalist Mark Steyn over an October 2006 article adapted from his book "America Alone." The Canadian Islamic Congress claims Steyn "subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt" and harms their "sense of dignity and self-worth" by worrying about high Muslim birth rates.
Even if a complaint is dismissed, Levant notes, responding to it requires "thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees" and "an enormous amount of time," which encourages journalists to steer clear of touchy subjects. "A warning shot has gone out to every other media (outlet) in the country," he said during the 90-minute commission interview. "'Don't mess around with the Muslim radicals because they'll call in the censors.'"
In Levant's case, the censors were represented by a bland bureaucrat named Shirlene McGovern, paid to enforce the commandment that Jonathan Rauch dissected in his 1993 book "Kindly Inquisitors": "Thou shalt not hurt others with words." As Rauch cogently argued, "This moral principle is deadly to intellectual freedom and to the productive and peaceful pursuit of knowledge."
But in a sense, Levant and Steyn are lucky. An Afghan journalism student recently was condemned to death for downloading and distributing a report that criticizes the way Islamic fundamentalists interpret the Koran to justify oppression of women. The student's Afghan defenders argued that distributing the report did not amount to blasphemy, that the prosecution was politically motivated, that the trial was unfair and that the sentence was excessively harsh.
The one thing they did not say was what Levant said when confronted by Canada's kindly inquisitors: that even if the controversial speech is contrary to Islam and offensive to Muslims, the government has no business punishing him for it. "I reserve maximum freedom to be maximally offensive, to hurt feelings as I like," Levant told McGovern. While he has publicly explained the journalistic reasons for running the Muhammad cartoons many times, he said, "The only thing I have to say to the government about why I published (them) is because it's my bloody right to do so."