Blog by John Miller

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Freedom or hate?

Is it free speech or is it hate?

So-called “free speech” advocates, who share a contempt for the kind of wisdom that can be meted out by human rights commissions, had a field day this week after the Ontario commission decided it didn’t have the mandate to consider a complaint against Maclean’s magazine – but criticized the article in question for promoting intolerance and Islamophobia.

The author of the article, Mark Steyn, accused the commission of a “drive-thru conviction” and wrote on his website: “Even though they don’t have the guts to hear the case, they might as well find us guilty. Ingenious!”

“The Future Belongs to Islam,” an excerpt from Steyn’s latest book, portrayed Muslims as sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to the West. “The only question,” Steyn wrote, “is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be.” The Canadian Islamic Congress and four law students at Osgoode Hall complained that Maclean’s, by repeatedly printing such articles and refusing to provide space for rebuttal, violated their human rights (see my earlier blog).

While the Ontario commission said it didn’t have the mandate to investigate a complaint against a magazine, it said: “The Commission recognizes and understands the serious harm that such writings cause, both to the targeted communities and society as a whole. And, while we all recognize and promote the inherent value of freedom of expression, it should also be possible to challenge any institution that contributes to the dissemination of destructive, xenophobic opinions.”

That statement won Steyn some allies, including the Toronto Star. “Human rights commissions, federal and provincial, should stick to policing hateful acts, not words,” it said in an editorial on April 11. It also said any complaints about publications should be directed to press councils, forgetting that Maclean's does not belong to one.

Related complaints against Maclean’s have been filed with the British Columbia and federal human rights commissions. A hearing as been scheduled for June 2-6 under section 7(1) of the B.C. Human Rights Code, which unlike the Ontario legislation prohibits publications that subject identifiable communities to hate.

Clearly, the tide of human rights legislation in Canada is recognizing the hurtful effects of targeting religious and ethnic groups through the media. As the Ontario Commission wisely said in its ruling: “Freedom of expression should be exercised through responsible reporting and not be used as a guise to target vulnerable groups and to further increase their marginalization or stigmatization in society.”

A new mandate for the Ontario Commission, which takes effect in July, will expand its role to public education. This includes “taking a leadership role in fostering constructive debate and dialogue among concerned individuals and organizations regarding the issues raised by Islamophobia in the media.”

Instead of the backlash against such action, we should heed the advice of Faisal Joseph, lawyer for the four Osgoode Hall students. “The fact that the Commission recognized in strong and clear language that Maclean’s is part of the racism and Islamophobia that exists in the media against Canadian Muslims, should be cause for shame and embarrassment,” he said. “Maclean’s should now try to solve the problem, not escalate it.”