The door to free speech

Stephen Boissoin’s views on homosexuality are ignorant and offensive, but they should never have been censored, nor brought before the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Stephen Boissoin’s views on homosexuality are ignorant and offensive, but they should never have been censored, nor brought before the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Darren Lund’s views on Boissoin and his views on the Red Deer Advocate’s decision to run a letter on gays by Boissoin in 2002 have been counterproductive, wasteful and spurious. They effectively put a chill on the aggressive debate of certain ideas in Alberta.

The commission should never have entertained, let alone heard or ruled on, Lund’s complaint about the letter, which carried the headline Homosexual agenda wicked. Lund sought to stifle open debate about homosexuality and the role of schools and others in espousing and supporting gay rights and alternate lifestyles.

His complaint to the Albertan Human Rights Commission about Boissoin’s letter, and the Advocate, subsequently launched a vigorous debate about the validity of the commission and the sanctity of free speech in this province (for that, at least, we should be thankful).

In the end, the commission ruled that Boissoin’s letter defied the legislation by discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and may have played a role in the Red Deer beating of a teenager. It ordered Boissoin to pay two people — $5,000 to Lund and $2,000 to a witness — who were not direct subjects nor victims of his letter. It also ordered the Advocate to publish a letter of apology by Boissoin. Boissoin would not write such a letter.

It was an intrusive ruling that left the malingering impression that newspapers should not be left to their own time-tested judgments about how to run their own businesses.

It was also a ruling without the due process of a court of law, without the vigorous rules of evidence and investigation.

And it has taken seven and a half years for the debate over Boissoin’s letter to the editor to reach a conclusion — providing that Lund, a former Red Deer school teacher who is now a University of Calgary professor, chooses not to appeal Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Earl Wilson’s decision last week to overturn the 2007 human rights commission ruling.

In 2007, a commission panel agreed with Lund’s complaint, which was based on Section 3 of Alberta’s human rights legislation. Yet the panel’s examination of evidence was hardly thorough, in part because the legislation does not demand the thoroughness of a court of law. The process is a quasi-judicial mishmash that costs all participants dearly, and drains public resources that could be better spent on such initiatives as education about tolerance and inclusion.

Conducting a tribunal is not the way to expose insidious ideas. To examine such ideas, and to determine what bit of truth may rest within even the most contemptible of those ideas, we need open public discourse. We must be willing and able to challenge even the most central of ideas, so that they may continue to evolve and, ultimately, inspire.

To do otherwise, either by official dictum or choice, is to create a conspiracy of silence, and that breeds stagnation and, ultimately, revolt.

Hateful ideas should not go unchallenged in the court of public discourse and in the courts of the land if those ideas are judged to break our criminal laws.

By setting aside the human rights commission’s decision, the Court of Queen’s Bench has helped to ensure that fair, open examination of ideas will continue.

Now the provincial government must follow suit and remove those parts of the human rights legislation that allow such specious claims.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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