The justice committee’s strange relationship with free speech

Lindsay Shepherd, Mark Steyn and John Robson before their testimony before the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

Neither Lindsay Shepherd nor John Robson nor Mark Steyn was censored today. In fact, they were all afforded a rare privilege for Canadians – the opportunity to testify before parliamentarians on a House of Commons committee.

But this is hardly worthy of celebration given how successful the efforts by members of parliament to diminish their platform were. These efforts were even supported by the Conservatives, who, despite inviting the three free speech advocates to testify as part of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights’ online hate study, backed a last-minute motion to scrap the video broadcast of the proceedings.

The meeting was scheduled to run from 8:45 am to 9:45 am Tuesday morning from Ottawa’s Wellington Building.

Committee members needed to address a procedural matter before turning things over to witnesses, appointing a Conservative to serve as the committee’s vice-chair. This was necessary after Conservative leader Andrew Scheer ousted Michael Cooper from the position for wrongspeak.

While Lisa Raitt was voted in as vice-chair, Barrie Conservative MP John Brassard ending up sitting in on her behalf for the meeting.

When it would have been time for the witnesses to begin speaking, things were delayed further by a motion from Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault to alter the official record and transcript from a prior meeting, purging it of Cooper’s citation of the Christchurch killer’s name and manifesto.

Cooper did so not to to support of condone the attack, obviously, but rather to correct blatant misinformation provided by a committee witness about the political persuasions of mass killers.

Boissonnault’s insistence that murderer’s names shouldn’t exist in public record seems rather shallow given, for example, the 21 instances in parliamentary records containing the name of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the terrorist who killed a soldier and stormed Parliament Hill nearly five years ago.

Mentioning the names of heinous people is an exercise of truth, not glorification. But this fact is lost on the Left, who allowing something to be uttered is the same as endorsing it.

Boissonnault’s motion served not only to embarrass Cooper and the Conservatives, but also to stall. NDP committee member Randall Garrison added to the delays by calling for a recorded vote for no other reason than to waste precious time.

Brassard aptly called the motion a “stunt,” yet the Conservatives didn’t vote against it. All of the Conservative committee members voted to abstain.

The Liberals and New Democrats have been mocking Conservative concerns about censorship as this committee’s study has waged on for the last two months, yet literally joined in scrubbing the official record of words uttered in a committee meeting, by one of their (former) colleagues.

It’s a dangerously poetic view of how these same legislators would love to view western civilization. Just band together and edit out the words, thoughts and ideas you think have no place in society. With Cooper, they even succeeded in editing the person out of the committee.

Liberal MP Colin Fraser attempted to hang on Lindsay Shepherd remarks made by other people, as though Shepherd’s support for one’s right to express an idea is tantamount to endorsing the expressed idea.

When it came to Garrison’s turn to ask questions, he used his entire block of time to give a monologue about his experiences as a gay city councillor-turned-member of parliament, chiding the witnesses for not living in the “real world” while giving them no opportunity to respond or offer further testimony.

Not that there was anything to respond to. He asked no questions, but kept eyeing the clock to make sure he didn’t stop talking until his time had elapsed, before turning it back to the chair.

It’s his prerogative as an MP to use the time how he sees fit, but it demonstrates that the NDP legitimately has no idea in hearing from those with whom it may have disagreements. Indeed, if he had his way, these panelists would not have been given a platform in the first place.

Only those witnesses agreeing with the NDP’s position on free speech and online hate should have been allowed to take the stand, the party clearly feels.

The procedural issues are always where the meat of censorship happens, because it’s so muddled in process and precedent that most people stop paying attention.

That happened early on in Tuesday’s meeting, when the committee’s most enthusiastic censor, the NDP’s Garrison, moved to cut off the video stream (which was already in progress) of the morning’s hearing.

Garrison said none of the prior testimony had been televised, so this hearing shouldn’t have been. He also rejected these specific panelists ideas being given a public platform after making the obligatory, half-assed statement that he isn’t against people having ideas – simply against them being heard, evidently.

I knew the motion would pass given the committee’s Liberal majority. What I didn’t anticipate was the egregious display by the committee’s Conservatives, who voted unanimously in support of the NDP motion, making it so no one in Canada could view video of these proceedings.

It wasn’t censorship. The meeting still happened, and an audio stream was broadcast and remains available. This doesn’t take away from the malodorous fact that MPs enthusiastically supported a barrier between ideas and an audience, endorsing the prevailing progressive view of free speech that even if you have the right to say something, no one should be able to hear it.

The Left says no one is entitled to an audience, which is true. What they don’t say so openly is how they endeavour to block those who wish to be an audience from doing so.

Garrison’s moral stand against videography became particularly hypocritical when an hour later he voted against a motion to cancel the television stream of Tuesday afternoon’s meeting with a Google Canada representative.

In 15 minutes of points of order and cross-partisan motions, before any of the witnesses had uttered a word, the Canadian free speech problem was on full display.

Most chilling for Canadians is that the Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives were all on the same team.

The fight for free speech is never over

It was a big victory against state censorship when section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed in 2013.

The repeal, accomplished through a private member’s bill by Conservative member of parliament Brian Storseth, eliminated the CHRA provision allowing for prosecution of online “hate” speech.

Yet not even a decade has passed and a parliamentary committee is weighing whether to bring back section 13 or an amended version of it.

The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has heard from nearly five dozen witnesses since April as part of its study of “online hate.”

“The Canadian Human Rights Act does not include any mention of telecommunications and the internet since section 13 of the Act was repealed in 2013,” the scope of the body’s study says. “The Committee is particularly interested in how potential amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Criminal Code, or any other Act, could help stem the propagation of hateful acts and the enticement of hate such as racism, sexism, antisemitism, islamophobia, or homophobia, through online platforms.”

Shamefully, yet unsurprisingly, most of the witnesses testifying–including the chief commissioners of the Saskatchewan and Canadian human rights commissions–have advocated a restoration of section 13.

While the Liberal government may wish to pretend there’s a gap in the law regarding the internet, there isn’t. Anything that’s illegal in Canada–as criminal hate speech is–is prohibited on the internet.

I suspect what censors are actually pining for is the murky and reprehensibly broad interpretation “hate” that the Canadian Human Rights Commission embraced during the lifespan of section 13.

This week the committee will hear from Mark Steyn, Lindsay Shepherd and John Robson. Their voices will be important after weeks of dozens of witnesses wanting government to not only clamp down on online hate speech, but also social media companies that allow it.

(Only a couple of witnesses to date have made preserving free speech a priority in their recommendations.)

There’s nothing wrong with opposing offensive and hateful speech. Wanting government to do so with the force of the law is a different story. Especially when the umpteen hours spent investigating “online hate” have not yielded a definition of it.

Even so, that Canadian Human Rights Commission’s chief commissioner testified that it poses a “clear and present danger.”

The missing definition is critical here, especially if the Left gets its way and social media postings do become subject to government regulation, as a supercharged section 13 would allow.

Given how readily the Left accuses anyone it disagrees with of “hateful” rhetoric with labels like “racist” and “Islamophobe” and the like, I’m not optimistic a Liberal definition of hate speech will hew to Canadian criminal law’s high threshold.

That this committee’s study exists in the first place is evidence of victory’s impermanence. I joined the chorus of celebration when section 13 was repealed in 2013.

The climate of free speech has changed a lot in these last six years, however. Conservative commentators had allies in liberal journalists on the question of censorship and free speech back then. Columnists and even some politicians on the Left understood that a liberal democracy must uphold free speech.

Now, defending free speech is somehow synonymous with defending bigotry to the Left, which is more focused on pinpointing where free speech’s limits are than with preserving the overall right.

Groups like PEN, Amnesty and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression care far more about identity politics than upholding freedom of expression.

Amnesty Canada, for example, testified in support of online hate speech regulation, arguing the “right to free expression” carries “special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to restrictions.”

Government bureaucracies don’t even pretend to care about freedom of speech. Case in point was Saskatchewan human rights commissioner David Arnot’s testimony before the justice committee last week.

Arnot said human rights commissions are the best way to curb hate, rather than criminal law, saying criticism of human rights commissions justifying censorship was merely “anecdotal.”

Except it wasn’t.

Steyn had to defend his right to publish a column about Islam before British Columbia’s human rights tribunal. The complaint against Maclean’s that sparked that trial was also put to the human rights bodies of Canada and Ontario, which declined to pursue only for lack of jurisdiction, not lack of support.

But Arnot, who I suspect is representative of the broader government-appointed human rights industry in Canada, rejects the premise that free speech is even a right in Canada, let alone one to be protected.

“Canada has no democratic tradition of unbridled free speech,” he said. “Freedom of speech in Canada has always been freedom governed by limits recognized in law.”

He argued there are “numerous limits to free expression that are justifiable in a free and democratic society.”

This is true when talking about threats, advocacy of genocide, and so on. Though Arnot said any protection against the “greater harm that flows from unfettered speech” is justified.

Anyone thinking the Conservatives will be reliable allies in this fight need only look at Andrew Scheer’s treatment of one of his own party’s members of parliament, Michael Cooper.

Until last weekend, Cooper was the vice-chair of the justice committee. Now he’s been booted by Scheer for the crime of being “insensitive” after pushing back against a witness’ erroneous claim that “conservative commentators” influence anti-Muslim attackers.

Cooper read from the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto to illustrate how the murderer actually disavowed conservatism. After the media falsely crafted a narrative of a Conservative MP beating up on a Muslim, Scheer capitulated, throwing his own caucus member under the bus for his “insensitive and unacceptable” comments, “especially when directed at a Muslim witness.”

This is one of the reasons I’m less optimistic about this renewed fight for free speech. A decade ago, Conservatives and even some Liberals were unified in their support for free speech. Now, Liberals and some Conservatives are united in the other direction.

Victory should never be taken for granted. The fight is the same as it was a decade ago, though the opposition is much larger.

Government-approved journalism coming to Canada

Canada will be co-hosting a press freedom summit in July with the United Kingdom, which I need your help to cover.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition for Canada to be lecturing the world on the importance of a free press when, this week, Canadians learned the federal will be putting together an A-list of approved media outlets to serve as the basis for who gets to benefit from a fund of tax money meant to bolster news subscriptions.

The problem for Canadians is that this creates an economic imbalance between government-funded outlets, and those not on the dole. It also raises integrity questions about the quality of content emanating from outlets wishing to stay in the government’s good books–literally.

I unpack this in my latest video for True North.

Stripe suspends Tommy Robinson’s campaign fundraising account – one week before election

Update: Stripe has temporarily reinstated Tommy Robinson’s account, pending a two-week review.

The full letter from Tommy Robinson’s lawyer to Stripe is at the bottom of this post.

When Tommy Robinson left the Old Bailey on Tuesday, he wanted to focus on his campaign for the European Parliament. A decision two days later from a Silicon Valley tech giant may make that more difficult.

A New York law firm representing Robinson says two of the British candidate’s accounts with Stripe – an online payment processing company – were suspended, including one used exclusively by the VoteTommy election campaign.

“Stripe informed Tommy this week that two accounts connected with him…were terminated on the ground that his business violated the Stripe Services Agreement,” a letter from Ronald Coleman to Stripe’s general counsel says. “Tommy’s campaign and fundraising are entirely lawful under both UK and EU law. Tommy has complied with all legal requirements for registering as an official candidate and he will be on the ballet in the EU Parliament election on May 23rd.”

Stripe has issued no public statement about the suspension, though I’ve reached out to the company’s media relations office and will update this when I hear back.

Coleman goes on his letter to note that Stripe has not denied its services to any other candidate in the election, and that the suspension “is seriously hindering Tommy’s ability to participate in the democratic process.”

My longstanding belief is that companies should have the right to do business with whomever they’d like, and should not be compelled otherwise. This is not as cut-and-dried where elections are concerned.

Canadian election law, for example, requires that publishers allow all candidates the opportunity to purchase advertising if it will allow some to do so. A company terminating a relationship with one week until the election disadvantages Robinson’s campaign at what is often the most critical point for fundraising.

Imagine if, say, a candidate’s web host decided in the days before an election that it would take their website offline, and that website was the vehicle through which the campaign would email people about how and where to vote.

I won’t pretend to know the intricacies of European election law, but if Stripe had an issue with being the payment processor of Robinson’s campaign, it has had ample opportunities to make a decision to suspend prior to this point.

Letter from Tommy Robinson&… by on Scribd

Judges grant British attorney general’s request for new contempt of court hearing for Tommy Robinson

Tommy Robinson is headed back to court in July for a re-hearing of the contempt of court charge that wound him up in jail just one year ago.

The High Court, presided over by Lady Justice Sharp and Mr. Justice Warby, granted a request advanced by the United Kingdom’s Attorney General to have a fresh hearing on the contentious charge.

Much of the two-hour session was rooted in procedural matters, though a recurring theme in the argument advanced by the barrister representing the attorney general was that it’s in the “public interest” for this case to proceed.

He also stressed the potential for Robinson’s Facebook live stream to have influenced jurors given the reach of social media posts in relation to traditional broadcast means. He did this to lay the groundwork that the alleged infraction was a severe one, to defend against Robinson’s barrister’s position that proportionality needs to be taken into consideration.

Two days have been set aside for the hearing, in less than two months. The appearance actually takes place less than a week before I was planning to be in London to cover the press freedom summit being co-hosted by Canada and the United Kingdom (for which I need your help).

I’ll have a further analysis of the case and its implications in the days ahead.