Harper to CJC: we must protect freedom of speech
Today Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave the keynote address to the biennial convention of the Canadian Jewish Congress -- Canada's "Official Jews". He said some newsworthy things that I'll mention in a moment, but let me focus on my favourite subject, that of freedom of speech.
As I indicated in my Op-Ed in the Toronto Star on Friday, the award that the PM was given was named after Saul Hayes, a Jewish political activist who was instrumental in adding key free speech defences to the Criminal Code provisions against "hate propaganda". The "hate propaganda" crimes are still a blight on our legal system -- words, ideas and emotions should never be criminalized -- but because of Hayes, there are important defences, such as truth, and the honest belief of the person speaking. Notably, those defences are not present in section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the censorship provision favoured by the CJC and its ilk. No wonder -- there is no Hayes Defence to section 13, so the conviction rate remains 100%, the envy of North Korea, Cuba and Iran.
To my delight, the PM referred to Hayes' free speech track record in his speech today. He reminded the Official Jews that it is a great Jewish tradition to support free speech -- even offensive free speech. How else could Mordechai Richler's works be described? Here are some excerpts from a transcript that was prepared from his remarks as delivered (the word "applause" is from the live transcript):
Richler wore the outraged protests of his victims like badges of honour. Caustic, controversial and crude, they called him "un écrivain provocateur." I'm told one Quebec separatist I recall even called for one of his books to be banned, an attempt that I'm glad to say failed, because in Canada, one of the human rights we treasure most is the right to freedom of expression. Without it, there can be no democracy, no free press, no freedom of enterprise, no provocative polemicists like Mordechai Richler and no free exchange of ideas, the universal catalyst for human progress.
Saul Hayes also understood this. In the 1960s, he was a key member of the Cohen committee, which laid the groundwork for Canada's first anti-hate law under the criminal code. It became an effective legal weapon against naked hatemongering without compromising the elemental right to freedom of expression, a fine balance that, quite frankly, we must work harder to maintain in this country. (APPLAUSE)
That's about as tough as you can get, while still sounding prime ministerial, I think.
The PM's wording wasn't perfect. The whole point about freedom -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from warrantless search and seizure, each of which (and more) is violated by Canada's human rights commissions -- is that it trumps other values, dogmas and priorities. To be technical, why it's called a freedom, not a right. It's a negative right -- the right to be free from other things. It can't be abridged because of someone's feelings. That is: there is no "balancing". We've got certain freedoms, full stop.
I think the PMO should have insisted that the CJC should have stripped the award from its last recipient, Richard Warman, before the PM accepted it. Warman, as readers of this blog (and Shakedown) will know, is Canada's most litigious censor. He censors libraries; he threatens to sue anyone who embarrasses him (literally dozens of his opponents); he is the most frequent complainant under the section 13 censorship provision of the CHRA. That's odious enough. But just two months ago, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal made a legal finding of fact that Warman wasn't just a prolific complainer -- he was also a prolific disseminator of hate speech, himself, especially anti-Semitic hate speech.
Warman joins neo-Nazi groups like Stormfront and Vanguard, goes onto their websites in neo-Nazi drag, and spews his bigotry hundreds and hundreds of times. This was known to the CJC when they gave him the Hayes award in 2007 -- what a disgrace. But even after the CHRT's ruling this March that Warman was disreputable for having done so, the CJC has not yet stripped Warman of the award.
In other words, the award the PM accepted today has been tainted by Warman's own anti-Semitic conduct.
Should the PM have declined to accept the award? Probably not; it was an important political opportunity. And, probably not 5% of the people who heard the speech knew who Warman was, or why he is a disgrace. And though Warman is disreputable, Hayes's legacy isn't. By not revoking Warman's award, the CJC shares in Warman's disgrace.
But enough about the CJC's disgraceful relationship with Warman -- let them wallow in each other's company. Back to the PM's speech.
There were two other noteworthy things the PM said today. The first was a great partisan shot against Michael Ignatieff:
It is all too common nowadays, friends, for politicians to claim to support Israel and the Jewish people in forums such as these. Yet, when Israel is attacked for the umpteenth time because its enemies refuse to
accept the right of the Jewish state to exist – that is the reason – these same politicians are quick to condemn Israel, to accuse it of war crimes and to demand that it unilaterally suspend its right to self-defence. You will not hear that kind of doublespeak from our government ever. (APPLAUSE)
Again, a PM has to be more subtle than a blogger. Harper didn't mention Ignatieff's name. But unlike Warman's obscure indiscretions, Ignatieff's comments during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, that Israel was a "war criminal", are well known to the audience today. Ignatieff spoke at the CJC today, too, and was surely obsequious. But can anyone in the room really count on Ignatieff's support for Israel when the chips are down? It's Ignatieff's former colleague at Harvard, Samantha Powers -- his "soul mate" -- who has argued that the U.S. should use military force against Israel, to force it to submit to Arab demands. That sounds like a typical kook academic -- but Power is a senior Obama advisor.
But the most interesting news today was the PM's announcement that Canada is introducing legislation to allow lawsuits against terrorist groups -- including foreign governments -- in Canadian courts:
This week in Parliament we will introduce legislation that will give victims of terrorism the power to obtain just compensation from those responsible for their suffering. (APPLAUSE) By amending the state immunity act, this bill will allow victims to sue perpetrators and sponsors of terrorist acts, including foreign states in Canadian courts.
Now, of course our actions in defence of human rights are by no means restricted to matters of foreign policy.
Defending free speech; jabbing Michael Ignatieff for his war crimes comment; and making a little news on the anti-terrorism front. Not bad for a fifteen minute speech.