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Rights commission ‘remedy’ flawed


A lot of folks in Alberta and beyond are feeling bruised and abused by the Alberta human rights commission’s conduct in dealing with a letter to the editor that was published on this page six years ago today.

We at the Advocate are among them.

We have had our eyes opened to some state-sanctioned ugliness.

The letter, by a local pastor, expressed love and compassion for some homosexuals, while decrying the activist homosexual agenda of some educators, MPs, judges (and possibly, though not specifically mentioned, Advocate editorialists who have long supported gay rights.)

Stephen Boissoin’s letter promoted a flurry of responses, pro and con, in our pages and two complaints to the Alberta human rights commission against the Advocate.

Both complaints were successfully resolved with no finding of fault, no Advocate admission of wrongdoing, no promise to act any differently in the future.

Darren Lund, a former Red Deer high school teacher now at the University of Calgary, also lodged a complaint against Boissoin. That led to a lengthy, dispiriting process that culminated at the end of May with the rights commission ordering Boissoin:

• to pay two people whom the commission acknowledges were not direct victims of his words — $5,000 to Lund for ridicule and harassment and up to $2,000 to a witness;

• to apologize in writing to Lund;

• to ask that the Advocate publish his letter of apology and the commission’s seven-page Decision on Remedy.

Boissoin has no intention of apologizing, as he makes clear in a letter on this page.

The galling presumption of the rights commission to subvert a newspaper’s own judgments over whether, when or where it should publish coerced opinions offers a window into its dangerous thinking.

The commission has its own website where it can readily publish any and all of its documents. Curiously though, more than two weeks after its Decision on Remedy was handed down, that ruling was not posted.

The more fundamental and serious defects of the rights commission surround its flawed processes that can lead to repressive and dangerous fallout.

Canada has criminal laws against libel and expressing hatred. Those laws are applied in courts, after police investigations and careful review by skilled prosecutors.

They are argued by lawyers before a judge, in a legal framework with rules of evidence that protect all sides.

The Alberta human rights commission, and others like it across the country, lack these tested and protective structures.

But their findings have the force of law.

The effects of how their processes are applied and findings are enforced endanger free speech and liberty.

The rights commission judged that Boissoin’s words “likely” exposed homosexuals to hatred or contempt. That’s a judgment based on scant evidence and a warped reading of Boissoin’s comments. It was arrived at by ignoring some of Boissoin’s phrases and misinterpreting others.

Lund suggested and the rights commission agreed that “militaristic language” was an invitation to physically assault gays.

But Boissoin used the kind of language that’s an everyday occurrence in political and sporting discourse, and in every time parishioners sing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”

It is precisely the kind of language that the saintly Nelson Mandela used in trying to rally Africans to fight the scourge of AIDS.

“There is a need for us to be focused, to be strategic and to sustain the effort until the war is won,” Mandala said. “We need. . . African resolve to fight this war.”

Any reasonably sophisticated reader can understand the difference between literal and figurative language. Based on the evidence before us, however, that distinction was lost on the rights commission.

Now, the rights of Albertans to publicly express views that they honestly believe are being constrained not by criminal law, but by fear of being hauled before a rights commission and the certainty of accumulating massive legal bills to defend themselves.

More egregiously, the rights commission not only wants to censure hateful speech (a laudable goal), but to pre-emptively deny some Albertans the right to express their legitimate views on certain topics.

The commission forbids Boissoin from writing “disparaging remarks” about gays — a phrase that has dubious legal weight — and forbids him, in advance, from writing critically about Lund’s involvement in this case.

This is called prior restraint. It’s an abomination in any free and democratic society.

But it’s what Lund sought and what the misguided rights commission has agreed to order.

Joe McLaughlin is Advocate managing editor.

Editor’s note: On Saturday, the Advocate will publish a column on what ails rights commissions by David Baugh of Red Deer College.

 
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