May 15, 2008
Human Rights RegressionBy Jonathan D. Strong
Since the end of the Second World War, much of Western Civilization took it for granted that the progress and triumph of human rights, freedom, and liberal democracy would continue in perpetuity. Of course, there were setbacks as communist insurgencies and revolution snuffed out the lights of liberty in various places round the globe, but the hope of freedom always reappeared in places like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Tiananmen Square, Poland, and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And despite the success that liberal democracy has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the possibility of Western concepts of freedoms no longer progressing, but in fact, regressing, is now more of a possibility than perhaps since Hitler's rise to power in the 1930's. What we may be witnessing today is not progress but regress in terms of our rights and freedoms.
In Britain, councils have ruled that images of Piglet from "Winnie the Pooh" must not be displayed because it causes offence to Muslims. Most newspapers and magazines refused to publish the infamous "Danish Cartoons" of Mohammed despite them being a legitimate news story because of the riots they resulted in around the world. The editors that did were castigated and in the case of Canadian editor, Ezra Levant, hauled before a "Human Rights Tribunal" after a complaint was filed against him by an imam in Calgary, Alberta.
Indeed, the West has changed and is changing more and quickly. The West, as part of its openness and inclusiveness, has received millions of Muslim immigrants from all over the globe and it is now affecting our culture in ways we never dreamt. Mohammed is now the second most popular name for boys in London, England and will soon be number one.
Canadian author Mark Steyn has warned in his book, American Alone, that the West faces major civilizational threats from a combination of it's declining birth rate and an influx of Muslim immigrants, many of whom do not share Western values, and some of whom are violently opposed to Western values. Like Mr. Levant, Steyn too has been summoned to appear before the British Columbia Human Rights Commission (HRC) to answer before the thought police for portions of his book that were published in Maclean's magazine (Canada's largest weekly news magazine).
Mr. Steyn is being sued by three Islamic individuals who happen to be graduates from Canada's most prestigious law school, Osgoode Hall at York University in Toronto.
The students contend that Steyn's article, and Maclean's decision to publish it, will lead to hatred and contempt towards Muslims and the religion of Islam. More broadly, they are saying that Islam is not in conflict with democracy or western values, and to prove their point, they are suing to prevent Mark Steyn from exercising his right of free speech.
While I am just a blogger, a peon, while aspiring and dreaming of being a columnist like Steyn, I am by trade an attorney at law, and am thus genuinely appalled by the actions of these law students. Their actions show either a complete absence of knowledge of Canadian and British common law history, or a flagrant opposition and antagonism to this history by their method of attack.
It is obvious that they realize that their case would be viewed as frivolous by any court worth it's weight in salt, and as a result, their choice of venue is a quasi-judicial body for tattle-tales whose cases don't meet muster according to real legal standards. Quasi-courts, like Human Rights Commissions, have only quasi-legitimacy at best. Their creation may have been well intentioned: to prevent injustice in housing and employment in the 1960's and 1970's as non-white immigrants first began to immigrant to Canada in noticeable numbers outside urban areas. However, good intentions can often lead to disastrous results.
These HRCs are dangerous (and illegitimate) because they defy hundreds of years of British legal tradition and history. The British legacy of the rule of law is one of the greatest legacies of British culture in all of history. Around the world in former colonies and protectorates, the traditions that stem from British courts often continue today even if those nations no longer consider themselves as part of the Commonwealth. The defiance of history observed by the HRCs and plaintiffs against Steyn are exemplified by a brief review of the time tested legal principles of standing, evidence, and damages.
The legal concept of standing requires an individual to show they have a personal interest in the case in question. American, Canadian, and British courts prevent third party standing in most incidents because such a plaintiff cannot prove a wrong has been committed against them. This prevents and individual from bringing a generalized complaint before the court. The HRC's have no requirement for standing. So anyone, can sue for any reason, whether or not they have been offended, discriminated against, humiliated, or if nothing happened to them at all.
There are also no rules of evidence. There is no "proof" required, and hearsay abounds within a HRC trial. The lack of evidentiary rules makes most lawyers cringe. Everything, including the kitchen sink, can be included in a complaint for the HRC to examine without any fact finding, witnesses, or proof. The HRC members will then determine what is admissible, important, and "true", which commonly means everything alleged.
Finally, damages are not required to be proven or quantified. Any civil suit in a "real" court requires damages to be proven so that a settlement or judgment can be reached after the evidence is weighed. The plaintiff must prove to the court and/or jury that the wrong has resulted in an injury or damages to their person, reputation, etc. HRCs don't require such finicky items like "real" damages. A complaint is proof in itself for damages.
If it was not so frightening and dangerous to our foundation of laws and values, the suit against Steyn would be comical. The students have essentially proven Steyn's thesis correct simply by filing their suit. Steyn's book claims that the Western world will look radically different because of the dramatic increase in the Islamic population which will change our civilization's values. Why? Because Islamic law does not recognize freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the equality of women, or freedom of the press. As it happens, Steyn is now being sued by Muslims for exercising his right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
It appears that these law students have not even considered the chilling effect their case will have on free speech or the freedom of the press. There is no right to be free from offence in the Canadian Charter of Rights, in the American Constitution and Bill of Rights, or in all of British legal tradition.
Even if Steyn's words are everything that these students say they are (which I disagree with strongly), that is even more reason that they are deserving of protection. Offensive speech and political speech require the most vigilant protection of all. Stifling offensive speech is perhaps the greatest danger. Consider that professing liberal democratic views and pro-Jewish words in Nazi Germany would have been deemed very offensive by, perhaps, a majority of the population at the time. In the West, you have the right to be an idiot just as you have the right to be a genius. There is no obligation or right for the state to intervene to prevent you from saying idiotic things, so long as they do not endanger public safety (i.e., yelling "fire" in a theatre) libellous, slanderous, defamatory, or advocate violence.
Steyn does not advocate violence or hatred, he writes to warn the west of the danger that looms because of an ideology that opposes to the values the West has held dear for hundreds of years: freedom of speech, equality of opportunity, the rule of law, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Steyn's book has warned us of the threats to our Western values, the law suit against him exemplifies that the threat is real and immediate.
Jonathan D. Strong is proprietor of The Strong Conservative.