The Alberta Court of Appeal has upheld the right of people to have opinions, and the right of newspapers to publish those opinions, even if those opinions are offensive, coarse, crude or insensitive.
On Wednesday, a panel of three judges dismissed an appeal by a former Red Deer school teacher and human rights activist who took exception to a letter published in the Red Deer Advocate on June 7, 2002.
Within the body of his letter, writer Stephen Boissoin attacks a system he calls “the homosexual machine.”
Two weeks after the letter was published, the Advocate reported that a gay teenager had been attacked.
Social Studies teacher Darren Lund then launched a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, claiming Boissoin’s rant had precipitated the attack.
While a human rights tribunal agreed with Lund’s position and awarded damages, that decision was later overturned by Justice Earl Wilson of the Court of Queen’s Bench.
Lund, who left his position at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School to join the faculty at the University of Calgary, then asked the Alberta Court of Appeal to review the Court of Queen’s Bench decision.
In a judgment heard on Dec. 7, 2011, and announced on Wednesday, the panel of three judges agreed with Justice Wilson, repeating his statement that, “While the language of the letter ‘may be jarring, offensive, bewildering, puerile, nonsensical and insulting,’ it was not likely to expose homosexuals to hatred or contempt within the meaning of the Alberta statute.”
Justice Clifton O’Brien, author of the Court of Appeal’s 31-page judgment, stated that he and the two other judges on the panel support the Advocate’s decision to publish the letter, allowing that it opened public discussion on an issue of public interest.
Joe McLaughlin, who was the newspaper’s managing editor at the time the letter was published, said in a sworn affidavit for the Queen’s Bench hearing that Boissoin’s letter did not directly target homosexuals, but that it targeted the “machine” that supports them.
“We believe that he has a right to express his views, and the Advocate has the responsibility to publish letters on issues of wide public interest,” says McLaughlin’s affidavit, parts of which are published in the Court of Appeal judgment.
O’Brien writes that a certain amount of debate must be permitted, even if some of it is offensive, “to make the general public aware that such type of thinking is present in the community and to allow for its rebuttal.”
The judgment also awards Boissoin his costs for the appeal.