Feature

Canada: Free speech on trial

The Canadian government is deciding whether Maclean's magazine broke the law by publishing an article by Mark Steyn that Canadian Muslims found offensive.

The Canadians may be our next-door neighbors, said David Harsanyi in The Denver Post, but that doesn’t mean they share our values. In a “disturbing demonstration” of this cultural gulf, Canada’s government thought police are currently deciding whether Maclean’s, the nation’s biggest-selling magazine, broke the law by printing an article that Muslims found offensive. The article, by the well-known conservative writer Mark Steyn, warned that “extremist” Muslims will become “a successor population” in Europe because of their high birth rate, and that “the only question is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be.” After complaints from Muslim groups, the Ontario Human Rights Commission agreed that Steyn’s views constituted unacceptable “hate speech,” and now both man and magazine are facing as-yet unspecified sanctions from the Canadian Human Rights Commission. For Americans, this case is rather shocking. We knew free speech was an alien concept in places like Zimbabwe or North Korea. But in Canada?

Actually, most Western nations have some limits on speech, said Adam Liptak in The New York Times. The idea that newspapers and magazines should be free to say whatever they like about entire groups of people—“even false, provocative, or hateful things”—is a uniquely American idea, and some U.S. scholars are starting to wonder whether we shouldn’t reconsider our absolutist position. “People will always differ” on precisely where legitimate criticism crosses the line into inflammatory “hate speech,” said Haroon Siddiqui in The Toronto Star, but surely we can all agree that the concept of free speech should not be taken as “a license to target vulnerable groups.” For those who know their history, the argument that the members of some particular ethnic or religious group “have taken over the world, or are about to,” usually is the precursor to a genocide.

But how does one properly define “hate speech”? asked Jonah Goldberg in National Review Online. There is a difference between telling a hurtful lie and telling an uncomfortable truth, and it happens to be true that the Muslim birth rate far outpaces that of native Western Europeans. But under Canada’s ridiculous “hate speech” laws, truth is not a defense. If some ancestor of Mark Steyn’s had written an article in 1938 speculating that the Germans were about to try taking over Europe, said Peter McKnight in The Vancouver Sun, would that have been unacceptably hateful? If it’s irrelevant to the system whether the statements at issue are true or false, “then we have arrived at a truly Orwellian state of affairs.”

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