Until last week, it appeared Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett would be permitted to remove an offending section from Alberta rights law. But a party in office for decades, faced with a matter of principle that can’t be resolved by spending, gave in to inertia and failed arguments and undercut the minister.
Section 3 bans opinions “likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt.” However, the line between disapproval and contempt is vague, and allows attacking someone for a belief by calling it hateful without having to refute it. The evidence is in: sect. 3 doesn’t work.
Section 3 should be removed for many reasons: using procedures contrary to settled principles of natural justice; trivializing our ancient, honourable freedoms of expression and religion; putting in place the pseudo-right not to be offended.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has opposed the Alberta Human Rights Commission for sect. 3 ordeals that bankrupted the Western Standard, and over the Stephen Boissoin case.
Boissoin, a Christian minister, was banned by AHRC from communicating Biblical views disparaging of homosexual acts, although it’s settled science male gay sex has many elevated health risks. The CCLA also opposed the hauling of Maclean’s magazine before similar boards elsewhere for comments about radical Islam.
These boards have become places to harass opinions in costly processes without due process of law – at taxpayer expense for complainants and huge legal costs for respondents, before staff and panelists who aren’t judges – where the process itself is part of the punishment for having “offended.”
Premier Ed Stelmach defended the section, saying we have responsibilities to each other. Quite so: our duties include respecting others’ freedoms and avoiding violence: by resolving disputes in the free market of ideas and not beating up others financially, on the taxpayers’ dime, for opinions one dislikes.
In On Liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Mill never said freedom of speech is without limits, such as false advertising, uttering death threats, shouting fire in a crowded theatre, etc. But he argues opinion must not be censored.
Mill gives four reasons. One, the silencing of an opinion assumes infallibility of the censor, but an opinion unexpressed and unexamined, for all we know, may be true. Two, the silenced opinion, though in error, may contain a portion of truth, and truth advances by debate among differing views. Third, if an opinion is true, censoring questions about it means it may be held blindly, in the manner of a prejudice. Fourth, truths shielded from debate may not only be enfeebled but lost.
In a humane and advancing society, “human beings owe to each other help,” Mill says, “to distinguish the better from the worse.” To those who say ‘all opinions are equally true, everything is beautiful, don’t worry, censor those who say otherwise,’ a society with freedom of thought has a timeless reply. We target no one for oppression and violence. Advance of truth will sweep away the refuge of lies. Covenants with ignorance and destruction will not stand.
David Baugh is head of political science at Red Deer College.