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The HRC on trial

When Ezra Levant was brought before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, his impassioned defence of his right to an unfettered freedom of expression touched off an internet firestorm. Now, as controversy mounts, the growing debate calls into question the power and purpose of the Human Rights Commissions themselves. (This is part one of a three-part special series)

Ori Rubin - January 31, 2008

On September 30 2005, the Jyllands-Posten, a small Danish newspaper, published 12 cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. They explained the publication by announcing their intentions to participate in a debate about self-censorship and criticism of Islam. The initial reaction was temperate. That all changed three months later. In December, several Danish Muslim leaders traveled to the Middle East, and fanned flames of anger and outrage by publicizing the appearance of the cartoons in the Danish newspaper. Outrage flared across the Muslim world in late December, and continued for several months. It erupted on February 4 in Damascus, Syria as violence and mass rioting culminated in a mob setting
fire
to both the Danish and Norwegian embassies.

Fearing that it was a powder-keg, many newspapers and magazines refrained from re-publishing the cartoons lest it add another spark. Only a few decided to cover the story with full information for their news consumers. In Canada, four news outlets reprinted at least one of the cartoons. Le Devoir in Montreal published one of the cartoons on February 3; on the same day, CTV News aired a story about the cartoons showing them in the news story; the University of Prince Edward Island Cadre intended to publish all 12, although they were all recalled by prior to going to print on February 8; and the Jewish Free Press published three of the cartoons on February 9.

Despondent and a little surprised by the unwillingness of news editors to re-print what he later called "the central artefact in the biggest news story at the time," Ezra Levant decided that the magazine he published, the Western Standard, would not shy away from giving their readers the full context. That required, as he saw it, the publication of the cartoons.

The February 27 issue of the Western Standard hit newsstands on February 13 with a small notice on the cover about the Muhammad cartoons. Inside were the offending cartoons, along with a news story explaining their significance. Public reaction was mixed. Some were angry. Conservative Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor claimed that it put Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan at risk of retaliation. Editorials blustered with both anger and support. Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his regret that the cartoons were published, and stated that he understood that "this issue is divisive, [and] our government wishes that people be respectful of the beliefs of others." Nevertheless, he commended the Canadian Muslim community for voicing their disapproval peacefully and democratically and reminded Canadians that "free speech is a right that all Canadians enjoy; Canadians also have the right to voice their opinion on the free speech of others."

At the time, Levant stated he did this because he believed it was his journalistic duty to show what was at the centre of a controversy that had mobs burning embassies and desecrating the flags of various Western nations. "The cartoons were the central artifact in the largest news story of the month," wrote Levant, "[h]ow could any self-respecting "news" outlet--other than radio stations that are forced to paint pictures with words--not display them?" Detractors, meanwhile, suggested that he was seeking to create controversy in order to boost the public image and shore up sales of the Western Standard. In spite of the detractors, a Compas opinion poll of Canadian journalists released on February 20 showed marked support for publishing at least some of the cartoons in at least some major newspapers. Fully seven in 10 Canadian journalists held this opinion.

Publication of the cartoons in the Western Standard did not result in violence in Canada. Nevertheless, Syed Soharwardy, an employee of IBM and the founder of several Muslim lobby groups, took offence. He filed complaints against Levant with the Calgary police, demanding that Levant be arrested. The complaint was dismissed, with the police informing Soharwardy that publishing the cartoons was not against the law. On February 23, Calgary's Crown Attorney, Gordon Chong, declined to lay hate charges against the Western Standard, explaining then that he saw no evidence that the Standard intended to incite hatred. Thwarted by the police, Soharwardy turned to the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and alleged that the Western Standard's publishing of the cartoons violated section 3 of the Canadian Human Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, and so on.

Nearly two years later, on January 11 2008, Ezra Levant appeared before the AHRC. Their hope was to conduct an "ordinary" Commission hearing, with Levant offering an explanation for the Western Standard's publication of the cartoons. What they got was far from ordinary.

THE "INQUISITION"

Three people sat at a table in a small gray government office in Edmonton--a hesitant and tentative representative of the Commission, Levant's lawyer, and Ezra Levant himself. Beneath a painting of a prairie farmhouse, Shirlene McGovern, the neatly-dressed civil servant, went through the motions of asking what, in her words, were standard and routine questions about what Levant's intentions were in printing the cartoons, and what he hoped to accomplish.

More articles by Ori Rubin