Ezra Levant ‘outs’ human rights tribunal procedures
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By Deborah Gyapong

CONTROVERSIAL columnist Ezra Levant  is standing firm in his critique of the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Levant, former publisher of the conservative  Western Standard, was ordered to appear before the AHRC after a complaint was lodged  in February 2006 by a Calgary imam.

Syed Soharwardy objected to the Standard’s republication of Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Extremists had used the cartoons to foment riots around the world, which left more than 100 people dead.

Last month, Soharwardy withdrew his complaint. He told the National Post: “I believe Canadian society is mature enough not to absorb the messages that the cartoons sent.”

Levant, however, intends to sue Soharwardy, claiming that he needs to recover the many thousands of dollars he spent fighting against the imam’s complaint.

He has also been very public in his opposition to the procedures of the AHRC.

Levant attempted to turn the tables on the tribunal by posting videos of his January 11 hearing on the internet. Several hundred thousand people have viewed his YouTube videos, available through EzraLevant.com.

“The government has no legal or moral authority to interrogate me or anyone else for publishing these words and pictures,” said Levant in his opening statement.

“That is a violation of my ancient and inalienable freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and in this case, religious freedom and the separation of mosque and state.”

Catholic Civil Rights League executive director Joanne McGarry agreed  HRCs (human right commissions) should not be hearing cases like the complaint against Levant.

“This case is not about discrimination, but rather about the free debate of political and religious issues that were topical when the cartoons were published,” she said. “While the right to free speech is not absolute, it is fundamental enough that any curtailment of it should be held to a much stricter legal standard, such as we see in court cases involving libel, slander or defamation.”

Levant has noted that the imam first tried to lay hate crimes charges against him, but police refused.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) general counsel Alan Borovoy, who played a role in the creation of HRCs and the laws that govern them, is concerned.

“We never envisioned that these laws would be used as an instrument of censorship,” he said, adding: “This trend towards using human rights laws as an instrument of censorship is a very backward and disquieting step. When you look at how broad the law potentially can be in this area, they could wind up censoring all kinds of material.”

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Ezra Levant faces the Alberta Human Rights Commission, as seen on YouTube.

Borovoy said he finds especially troubling the fact that the law includes material “likely to expose” people to hatred or contempt. He noted the lack of any requirement for intent to foment hatred. The truth or a reasonable belief in truth is not a defense. That means news coverage of world hot spots such as Rwanda, the Middle East and Northern Ireland could be seen as subjecting any of the ethnic or religious groups involved to contempt or hatred under this law, he said.

In his opening statement, Levant argued the “interrogation” went against 800 years of common law, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

He also described it as “procedurally unfair,” adding:“Unlike real courts, there is no way to apply for a dismissal of nuisance lawsuits,” he said. “Common law rules of evidence don’t apply. Rules of court don’t apply. It is a system that is part Kafka, and part Stalin. Even this interrogation today . . .  saw the commission tell me who I could or could not bring with me as my counsel and advisors.”

Levant and others have also argued that even principles like “innocent before proven guilty” do not apply. While the complainants’ costs are covered, the defendant has to pay legal fees in most provinces. Levant told the AHRC that even if he wins he loses thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of wasted time. In his closing argument (also on YouTube) he said he hoped to lose his case so he could appeal to a “real” court.

The Centre for Cultural Renewal’s executive director Iain Benson said the widespread viewing of Levant’s videos will “in effect ‘out’ the kind of things that are implied when we begin to adjudicate for ‘hurt feelings.’”

“That is good for Canada where so many Canadians seem satisfied that all is right with human rights generally and tolerance in particular,” he said. “It is far from all right.”

Both Benson and Borovoy hope reaction against HRCs does not undermine their original purpose, which Borovoy said was to focus on “discriminatory deeds, not words” in areas of housing and employment.

“There is an important place for genuine human rights protection; but this work will be hampered by this kind of inquisition about which Mr. Levant complains,” said Benson.

– Canadian Catholic News

March 2008