An important victory for free speech in Canada

We used to talk about politics, back in the 70’s, at school.  And sometimes we didn’t agree.  Sometimes someone would say something outrageous.  And it might earn the commonplace response, “It’s a free country”, with the understood corollary that anyone might say what they thought.

It’s a saying that you never hear today.  Because in many countries the political establishment has quietly taken away the right to free speech.  An ever-lengthening list of causes and favoured groups may only be criticised by those willing to risk prosecution for “hate speech”, to be dragged through the courts and harassed endlessly. 

Often this process of intimidation has been carried out by so-called “human rights” bodies.  Usually they have selected as their victims men who are poor, isolated, with few resources.  The purpose is to create case law, not to uphold law, and who better to victimise as “haters” than people who can’t afford lawyers?

In Canada the blogger Ezra Levant was attacked by one such evil organisation, and harassed for almost two years, at enormous expense to himself.  But the attack was a mistake; for Levant was a well-connected man, a publisher, and well able to take care of himself.

Today I read in the National Post that justice has finally been done: the enabling legislation for these thought-crime prosecutions is being repealed:

For decades, Canadians had meekly submitted to a system of administrative law that potentially made de facto criminals out of anyone with politically incorrect views about women, gays, or racial and religious minority groups. All that was required was a complainant (often someone with professional ties to the CHRC itself) willing to sign his name to a piece of paper, claim he was offended, and then collect his cash winnings at the end of the process. The system was bogus and corrupt. But very few Canadians wanted to be seen as posturing against policies that were branded under the aegis of “human rights.”

On Wednesday, the federal Conservatives voted to repeal it on a largely party-line vote — by a margin of 153 to 136 — through a private member’s bill introduced by Alberta Conservative MP Brian Storseth. Following royal assent, and a one-year phase-in period, Section 13 will be history.  ….

Till the middle part of the last decade, the Canadian punditariat was dominated by professional columnists who were socially, ideologically, and sometimes professionally, beholden to the academics, politicians, and old-school activists (from Jewish groups, in particular) who’d championed the human-rights industry since its inception in the 1960s. But in the latter years of Liberal governance, a vigorous network of right-wing bloggers, led by Ezra Levant, began publicizing the worst abuses of human-rights mandarins, including the aforementioned Dean Steacy. In absolute numbers, the readership of their blogs was small at first. But their existence had the critical function of building up a sense of civil society among anti-speech-code activists, who gradually pulled the mainstream media along with them. In this sense, Mr. Levant deserves to be recognized as one of the most influential activists in modern Canadian history.

The battle against human-rights speech codes is far from won: The worst cases of censorship, such as the muzzling of Christians who proselytize texts that contain anti-gay themes, occur at the provincial level. Yet the tide clearly has turned: The Canadian Human Rights Commission received only three hate speech complaints since 2009, two of which were dismissed. And at the provincial level, bureaucrats know that any censorious verdict they deliver instantly will be pounced upon by Mr. Levant and his blogging allies (including some at this newspaper), and thereby become a lightning rod for legislative reform.

This is not the only straw in the wind.  In Britain opposition to a similarly evil piece of legislation has been crystallising in the last few months.  The Public Order Act of 1986 contains a section (section 5) which has allowed the police to arrest and “question” people for their opinions.

The Public Order Act rightly makes it a criminal offence to behave in a manner which is threatening, disorderly, abusive, or which constitutes harassment. However, section 5 of the Act also makes it an offence to use words which anyone within earshot might find ‘insulting’.

This is a step too far, and it has had troubling consequences.

When an Oxford University student out celebrating the end of his exams asked a policeman ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ it should have been ignored as a daft comment. Instead police first tried to fine the student £80, then locked him up overnight and took him to court after he refused to pay. Eventually prosecutors dropped the case, having wasted plenty of taxpayers’ money in the process.

After a 16-year-old from Newcastle said ‘woof’ to a labrador within earshot of police officers, he was hauled in front of magistrates and fined £200, a decision later overturned by a jury.

City of London police charged a teenager under section 5 for demonstrating with a placard bearing the word ‘cult’ outside the Church of Scientology’s UK headquarters.

A street preacher armed with a placard proclaiming the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality was fined £700, a move condemned by world-renowned gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as ‘an outrageous assault on civil liberties’.

These are just a few of the growing list of examples where the law against using ‘insulting’ language has led to heavy-handed action by police and prosecutors. It is not only distressing for the individuals concerned, it constitutes a threat to Britain’s tradition of free speech. …

So what should we do about it?

The solution is simple; the law needs to change. The word ‘insulting’ should be removed from section 5 of the Public Order Act. This would provide proportionate protection to individuals’ right to free speech, whilst continuing to protect people from threatening or abusive speech.

Support for amending section 5 comes from a large number of MPs and peers, along with groups as diverse as the Christian Institute and National Secular Society, and human rights organisations Liberty, Justice and The Peter Tatchell Foundation. MPs from all parties recently called for the Freedom Act (passed two weeks ago) to be amended to this effect, only to be thwarted when the amendment was not called.

The article does not say so, but the legislation has been used several times — I have no confidence that I would know of all occurrences — by gay rights activists to attack Christian street preachers.  The approach taken by these agents provocateurs has been to demand whether the preacher agrees with the bible that homosexuality is a sin, and, when he says he does, find a policeman and denounce the preacher under section 5.  The legislation is so vaguely worded — in order to allow the police freedom of action — that it can be used by all sorts of people, and has been.  I suspect that we owe this campaign in Britain to the Moslems who arranged for some gay rights activists to be arrested for “offending” the Moslems.  Once the biter is bit, he looks for ways to prevent it!

But it is good to see the tide starting to turn.  In 20 years people will marvel that such a stain came over the free world.  Well done Canada.

UPDATE: Journalist Mark Steyn, another victim of the thought police, also celebrates

You don’t generally get to pick your battles, and, if you’d asked me circa 2007 if I wanted to spend much of the next half-decade battling for the restoration of freedom of speech in Canada and elsewhere, I’d probably have decamped to the South Sandwich Islands. But then the Canadian Islamic Congress and their statist enablers in the “human rights” racket attempted to impose a de facto lifetime publication ban on me, and so I found myself conscripted to the cause.

It’s been a long, slow process, but the victories have been real. Section 13 of the Canadian “Human Rights” Code has as a practical matter been rendered unenforceable. It’s now about to be removed from the law formally. It passed its third reading in the House of Commons, which means it only requires a vote in the Senate and Royal Assent (yes, yes, calm down, Kevin Williamson et al), and it’s history.

But he points out that those who created this evil are not dead, as one of them pops up and demands the power to censor those he disagrees with.  Mark’s response is robust:

Clear off, you twerp. I don’t want the state to have a “mandate” to “educate” the citizenry about their thought-crimes. Even if I did not object on principle, one thing I’ve learned during this five-year campaign is that the statist hacks Canada’s official opposition is so eager to empower are, almost to a man, woman and pre-op transsexual, either too stupid or bullying to be entrusted with the task.

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