Three years ago I was the publisher of a magazine that printed pictures of some Danish cartoons of Muhammad. They were newsworthy because those cartoons sparked riots in the Muslim world that killed more than 100 people. We wanted to show our readers what all the fuss was about.
But by doing so, I was charged by the government of Alberta with “hate speech,” and prosecuted for 900 days by 15 government lawyers and bureaucrats at Alberta’s human rights commission (HRC). I was finally acquitted, but not before spending $100,000 in legal fees.
Funny: I thought freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion were human rights!
While I was being hunted by the government because of my political views, I researched these HRCs and discovered a whole underground legal system — 14 commissions across the country, with 1,000 full-time staff, and an annual budget of $200 million. HRCs rarely make the news, and their procedures are nothing like real courts. They’re not even run by real judges, and they lack the procedural checks and balances to make sure we don’t commit injustices.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing I learned in my research was that in the 32 years that the federal Canadian Human Rights Commission has been prosecuting “hate speech” cases, not a single person had ever been acquitted of the charge.
A 100 per cent conviction rate is something you’d expect from a country like China or Iran, not Canada. Then again, banning words — even offensive words — isn’t a Canadian tradition, either. We debate people we disagree with, or we ignore them. We don’t have the government prosecute them.
My case, and a similar case involving Mark Steyn and Maclean’s magazine, brought the hidden worlds of HRCs into the light. Since then, politicians and journalists alike have condemned them for their un-Canadian attempts to censor citizens.
Freedom of speech is something we take for granted, so we rarely think about it. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
We’ve got to reform these HRCs, to get them out of the censorship business. And we’ve got to remind Canada’s other censors — from university “speech code” enforcers to the radio and TV regulators at the CRTC — that freedom is a Canadian value and we won’t give it up easily.