I agree with Jim Henley and Roy Edroso that the complaint filed in federal and provincial human rights commissions against Mark Steyn is a dangerous threat to free speech. Not because, as Maclean’s is saying in defense, Steyn’s writing isn’t “Islamophobic,” but because the suppression of political speech is exceptionally dangerous. Some people may object that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Charter is, in Section 1, subject to “reasonable limits” that “can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Well, even when the right to free speech (as in the American Constitution) is stated categorically and without explicit exemptions, free speech rights are never absolute. The direct advocacy of violence against groups and individuals, for example, can be regulated if it’s a serious threat. But limitations to free speech that go so far as to include political writing that some groups or individuals find offensive would swallow the right entirely; I can’t see how such limits can be “demonstrably justified.”
But even if we assume arguendo that the legislation permitting the complaint is legal as a matter of constitutional law, it remains true that the legislation is overbroad and that the filing of complaints against Steyn is a chilling attack on free speech. As Henley points out, “it’s naive to think that the political process, which is all about the deployment of relative power, can sustainably suppress the expression of the strong in favor of the expression of the weak.” As I’ve written before with respect to the Canadian Supreme Court’s well-intentioned but misguided attempt to permit the censorship of pornography on feminist grounds — which predictably led to the harassment of gay and lesbian bookstores — if such censorship is necessary it won’t work and if it can work it’s not necessary. The application of inherently vague standards to censor speech is highly unlikely to work to the benefit of groups with less access to political power in the long run. And a right to free speech that doesn’t include speech that one considers objectionable is not a right to free speech at all.