First they came for the journalists. Then they came for the teachers. Who’s next? Let’s hope it’s the people responsible for Bill 44 because the Alberta government’s proposed changes to human rights legislation make matters worse, not better.
It is time to speak up before the new law is passed.
Bill 44 to amend the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act does nothing to protect freedom of speech and now puts teachers at risk of facing human rights complaints for violating the parental “right” to opt children out of lessons having to do with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.
The failure to protect a fundamental right and the creation of an artificial one smacks of unprincipled political compromise and a poor grasp of the unintended consequences of ill-considered policy-making.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in a democratic society, and it should go without saying – but unfortunately does not – that any government committed to protecting rights and freedoms should not empower human rights commissions to restrict free speech. When offensive speech turns into incitement to violence, we’ve got the Criminal Code to deal with it.
Lately, there were encouraging signs that Lindsay Blackett, Alberta’s Minister responsible for human rights, was showing such courage and ethical leadership. He suggested that fixing section 3 of Alberta’s human rights act was all but done because people “should have the ability to say what they say and somebody should have their ability to have the counter argument. That is what a free and open society does.”
But now, in response to the government’s decision to do nothing about s.3, he says “I can have my opinion but, when it comes to caucus, the caucus decision goes forward,” and he compares the failure to achieve legislative change on a fundamental point of principle to not getting a pair of skates he once wanted.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. Not only does the proposed legislation fail to protect free speech, it also would enshrine a parental opt-out clause that is a slippery slope to legal and administrative chaos.
Parents could object to almost anything on these grounds – say, a history lesson on the Protestant Reformation or a literature course on that randy Shakespeare. The premier even admits that parents could remove children from courses dealing with evolution.
For every parental objection, there could be human rights cases against teachers, administrators or school boards for failing to notify parents about any lesson that falls afoul of this excessively broad and vague provision.
The administration of the opt-out would also be unwieldy: how could advance notice be given for every single lesson or class discussion dealing with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation?
Besides, the education department already mandates advance notice and an opt-out for clearly specified courses dealing with human sexuality (i.e., sex education), so why enshrine it in fundamental human rights legislation and open the door to exemptions to the entire curriculum?
Dan Shapiro is a research associate at the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.