Ontario Seeks to Tweak Media’s ‘Human-Rights Filter’

Murray Campbell, Globe and Mail (Toronto), August 28, 2008

Ontario has overhauled its human-rights system, but the question that remains is whether Mark Steyn is still in trouble. The answer isn’t clear yet, but he would be wise to keep his lawyers on speed-dial.

You will remember Mr. Steyn. He is the famously antagonistic, right-wing author of the book America Alone, the End of the World as We Know It, an excerpt of which was published in MacLean’s magazine in October, 2006. The article infuriated a number of Muslims, including officials of the Canadian Islamic Congress, who demanded equal time in the magazine. When that was refused, they launched an assault using Canadian human-rights agencies.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission dismissed the complaint, while the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal heard evidence through June and reserved its decision. The experience in Ontario was more complicated and much more intriguing.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission said in April that it couldn’t proceed with a complaint because magazines are not covered under the province’s human-rights code. But the commission said it had “serious concerns” about a number of similar articles in Maclean’s and other news outlets that were “inconsistent with the values enshrined” in the codes and were “contributing to Islamophobia.”

In later interviews, Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall said the media have a duty to put their writings through “a human rights filter” and promised to return later to the subject of the portrayal of minorities in the media.

She is getting her chance. The newly revamped Ontario human-rights system gives Ms. Hall’s commission a focus on broader, systemic discrimination issues while leaving the adjudication of individual allegations of discrimination in the hands of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. A separate legal support centre will provide lawyers and paralegals to guide people through the system.

The three agencies are independent but are also intertwined, so that Ms. Hall’s commission can initiate actions before the tribunal and intervene on behalf of others while the tribunal may also refer matters to the commission.

Progressive Conservative MPPs Lisa MacLeod and Randy Hillier are trying to find out the views of the people who will sit on this beefed-up tribunal. Last week, they grilled nine nominees to the tribunal about whether they think, for example, that freedom of speech has to be filtered. Again and again, Ms. MacLeod asked: “Does discrimination trump free press or does free press trump discrimination?”

Most of the people appearing before a legislative committee cautiously refused to respond to what they viewed as a hypothetical question. One exception was Alan Whyte, a Belleville lawyer who said he supports the media’s freedom under the Charter of Rights to report stories “as they see fit,” but then qualified it. “If there is some sort of discrimination that comes out in the reporting that is arguably contrary to the code, then I would also feel that it would be open to a complainant to challenge the reporting as being discriminatory on the grounds of race,” he said.

Ms. MacLeod is right to explore the grey area between free speech and responsibility and to wonder how the tribunal will operate when it is handed allegations of discrimination from people who don’t believe press councils or hate laws protect them. “At the end of the day, these are unelected bureaucrats who will have some pretty serious decision-making power,” she said.

Ms. MacLeod wants more debate on the issue. So does Ms. Hall. It’s time for Attorney-General Chris Bentley to get it going—before Mr. Steyn writes another book.

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