Saturday, March 22, 2008

Big day for anti-censorship; or, I say, "Blame the chair!"

By which I mean today, Saturday the 22nd, because the National Post published a corker of a story (click here to read) by Joseph Brean that takes a very close look at the workings of and philosophy behind the federal hate speech complaint mechanisms.

Take a look at this quote from David Matas, senior legal counsel of B'nai Brith Canada and author of the very interesting book Bloody Words: Hate and Free Speech (from which I learned a great deal, even though I disagree with most of his arguments), on why we should not let a few bad cases bias us against the whole process:

"The mere fact that you've got a legal system that allows for a complaint which is maybe wrong doesn't in itself invalidate the system. If somebody tries to hit you with a chair, you don't blame the chair."

That makes sense, no? Must we 'blame the chair,' 'throw the baby out with the bathwater,' 'let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch?' I mean, does it really matter, in a long-term sense, that there are two very high-profile instances of abuse in the complaints against Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn? Two bad cases in the entire history of the Human Rights Commission is really not so bad a record. Compare that to our criminal justice system, for example. I can cite you a list of wrongful convictions from recent memory, convictions that had far more severe consequences for the defendants than anything the HRCs can do: Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard, Steven Truscott, Donald Marshall... the list goes on. The criminal justice system has obviously perpetrated its share of injustices. Should we 'blame the chair,' and shut the thing down? Obviously not. Case closed, then?

Well, not exactly. One of the many problems with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that the Human Rights Commissions were doing just fine at enforcing hate speech laws before these bad cases came along. It assumes that, as long as the commissions were going after neo-nazis and homophobes, the system was humming along wonderfully.

But what if that assumption is completely wrong? What if, instead of silencing these neo-nazi types, our prosecutions turned them into heroes for their supporters? What if the system were set up in such a way that it allowed a few serial complainants to use the commissions over and over and over again? And what if, after all these years of fines and 'cease and desist' orders against neo-nazis and other haters, racism continued to rise at an alarming rate? In other words, what if the chair is useless even as a chair?

In that case, I would say it's time for some new furniture.

UPDATE: Welcome, readers!