© 2000  Karen Selick
More Nails in Free Speech Coffin
An edited version of this article first appeared in the October, 2000 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


More Nails in Free Speech Coffin

"Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me."  That’s what Canadian parents taught their kids to believe back in the 1950s if the kids complained that someone had called them a nasty name.  

Today, that advice is obsolete.  "Call the human rights commission!" is the maxim of the new millennium.  Instead of dismissing the slights of ignoramuses as unworthy of attention, Canadians are increasingly doing the exact opposite:  nurturing every grievance, dwelling on their pain and suffering, and devoting frantic energy to seeking redress.

This change has been encouraged by the so-called human rights laws, which offer not only the warm, delicious satisfaction of creating years of grief for the clod who insulted you, but the added bonus of appropriating part of his bank account for "injury to feelings and self-respect." 

Personally, I’ve always been puzzled by the idea that one’s self-respect can be injured by someone else.  If you respect yourself, surely it’s because an objective, soul-searching assessment of your own character and conduct has led you to believe you’re a good person.  Someone else’s calling you a dirty so-and-so without any evidence shouldn’t make you change your mind.  It should simply lower your opinion of the other guy.  If you’re so lacking in backbone that some bigot’s offhand assessment of you automatically makes you doubt your own, then you probably didn’t have much character to respect in the first place. 

In any event, the jackpot may soon get even richer.  In its report to Justice Minister Anne McLellan released in June, 2000 the Canadian Human Rights Act review panel recommended amending the act to remove the upper limit on the damages that can be ordered for bruised egos.  The old limit of $5,000 had already been increased to $20,000 in 1998.  

The report also recommended adding "social condition" (i.e. poverty) as a prohibited ground of discrimination, thereby inflating the ranks of those who will find it rewarding to be offended. 

However, it recommended against adding political belief as a prohibited ground of discrimination.  Why?  This "might protect those who disseminate hate propaganda"—in other words, those whose ideas are politically unpalatable to the privileged groups holding official victim status. 

Does nobody give a damn about freedom of speech in this country any more?  The CHRA report sent me rummaging through the provincial human rights statutes to see how they compare with the federal one.  I was horrified by what I found lurking there.

Saskatchewan’s law is probably the most hypocritical.  It starts out well enough, with a mini Bill of Rights that guarantees "the right to freedom of expression through all means of communication, including…speech, the press,…[etc.]"

Suddenly, nine sections later, it contradicts itself.  "No person shall publish… any… statement … which exposes, or tends to expose to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person, any class of persons or a group of persons because of his or their race, creed, religion, colour, sex…[etc.]"

Then it flip-flops again:  "Nothing in [the preceding] subsection… restricts the right to freedom of speech under the law upon any subject."

Excuse me?  Of course the preceding subsection restricts freedom of speech.  What on earth is it there for, if not to restrict freedom of speech?  If the legislators were uneasy about the rectitude of the subsection, they should have left it out, instead of putting it in and then adding a bold-faced lie about its effect.  

But this legislation has been around for years.  Why get upset about it now?  

Well, the CHRA review panel demonstrates just how far some prominent Canadians are willing to go to quash freedom of expression.  Here are some of the examples cited in the report of statements that supposedly demonstrate "prejudice against the poor."

"If we want children to get a good and healthy start in life, what we need more than anything else is responsible parents," (from economics professor Chris Sarlo in a Fraser Institute magazine).

"That’s why health and education policy makers should help Canada’s most needy children, often the poorest ones, by helping their mothers and fathers learn how to be better parents,"  (from an editorial in The Globe and Mail).  

If statements as innocuous as these are considered poor-bashing by a panel of "experts" on so-called human rights, will there be anything that can safely be said on the subject of poverty after these amendments take effect?  

Equally chilling is the panel’s revelation that it would not attempt to define "hate" because the section outlawing hate messages "might lose some of its reach."  Yeah, it might not catch the Fraser Institute or The Globe and Mail.

Nor would the panel consider providing a defence of truth:  "A truthful statement in this context is just as damaging as an untruthful one."

Don’t look to the Supreme Court for a way out of this nightmare.  It painted itself into a corner years ago, okaying the infringement of free speech in several cases involving anti-Semitic propaganda.  Instead of holding its collective nose and upholding a principle, the court paved the way for Canada to morph into precisely the kind of totalitarian regime we profess to despise.  

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Jan. 6, 2001