Mandatory Niceness: 'Human Rights' in Canada

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Mandatory Niceness: 'Human Rights' in Canada


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


IN JANUARY an officer of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission interrogated the Canadian journalist Ezra Levant about his decision to reprint the notorious Muhammad cartoons that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Fyllands-Posten. Levant, the former publisher of the Western Standard, did not try to ingratiate himself. He called the commission "a sick joke" and dared the "thug" across the table to recommend that he face a hearing for offending Muslims.

Levant wanted to be convicted, since that would give him a chance to challenge the censorship that Canadian human rights commissions practice in the guise of fighting discrimination. "I do not want to be excused from this complaint because I was reasonable," he told the officer. "It is not the government's authority to tell me whether or not I'm reasonable." That position has attracted broad support in Canada, where editorialists, columnists, activists, and legislators from across the political spectrum have criticized the commissions for threatening freedom of speech.

The national and regional commissions were established in the 1970s to vet complaints about illegal discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services. But many of them have broad, ambiguous legal mandates that can be used to target controversial 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. …

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