Here we go again.
This October I will be prosecuted for one charge of being “publicly discourteous or disrespectful to a Commissioner or Tribunal Chair of the Alberta Human Rights Commission” and two charges that my “public comments regarding the Alberta Human Rights Commission were inappropriate and unbecoming and that such conduct is deserving of sanction.”
Because last year I wrote a newspaper editorial calling Alberta’s human rights commission “crazy”.
Have you ever heard of a journalist being prosecuted for being disrespectful towards a government agency? A journalist in Canada, that is — not in China or Russia.
I’ve been through something like this before. In February of 2006, I was the publisher of the Western Standard magazine. We ran a news story on the Danish cartoons of Mohammed and the deadly Muslim riots that followed. Being a news magazine, we included photos of the cartoons to show the central element of the story.
Muslim activists filed “hate speech” complaints against the magazine, and me personally, for reporting this legitimate news story. What followed was straight out of Kafka: a 900-day investigation by no fewer than 15 government bureaucrats and lawyers for the thought crime of publishing news “likely to expose a person to hatred or contempt.” Truth was not a defence; journalism was not a defence. The commission had invented a counterfeit human right not to be offended.
I spent $100,000 on legal fees before the commission dropped the charges against me — because they were taking such a beating in the media. Even the provincial cabinet minister in charge of the commission at the time, the Hon. Lindsay Blackett, told reporters the commission had become a “kangaroo court”. I guess he’s allowed to say that, but I’m not.
Over time human rights commissions have gotten much more scrutiny, and the federal human rights commission even had its censorship powers repealed by Parliament. But last year, Alberta’s commission stumbled back in the news. A Czech immigrant had failed the provincial engineering exam three times, so he complained to the commission that the exam was “discriminatory”. In a shocking ruling, they agreed and ordered Alberta’s engineering profession to lower their standards and pay the complainer $10,000.
I have an opinion about that. I think it’s: crazy. You may have the same opinion and, if you’re not a lawyer, you’re allowed to express it. I expressed it anyway. After all, I was a journalist and hadn’t practiced law in many years. My job was to express my opinion. Sun News hired me, as a journalist, to do exactly that.
This time the commission didn’t come for me. But one of their prosecutors did. Arman Chak filed a complaint to the Law Society of Alberta about my column. Even though I haven’t practiced law in years, I’m still a lawyer. That was his angle.
At first, the Law Society dismissed his complaint without even a hearing, as they do with other nuisance complaints filed against me over the years by my political opponents. It would be unprecedented to prosecute a journalist for having the wrong opinions about a government agency.
Alberta benchers aren’t always so fastidious about courtesy. Earlier this year Dennis Edney, Omar Khadr’s lawyer, stood outside the Edmonton court house, blaming Khadr’s legal situation on the legal system’s anti-Muslim “bigotry”. But like Chak, Edney is a law society bencher himself. He is not being prosecuted. Nor should he be — we need passionate lawyers, zealously advocating for their clients, even if they’re sometimes prickly.
To my knowledge the decision to prosecute me is unprecedented. Unlike Edney and his court-house remarks, I’m not even a practicing lawyer. I’m a journalist who happens to be trained in the law. There are tens of thousands of inactive lawyers like me in Canada. They include politicians like Peter MacKay and Thomas Mulcair. Sometimes these politician-lawyers are polite. Sometimes they aren’t. Two years ago, my fellow member of the Law Society of Alberta, an opposition politician named Rachel Notley, compared the Alberta Energy Regulator to a “banana republic”. It’s a quasi-judicial tribunal, like the human rights commission. But it’s unthinkable that the Law Society would have prosecuted her for being “discourteous” to a government agency. Because we live in a democracy and value public debate.
Well, I do too. And I’m going to keep calling the human rights commission “crazy” for the rest of my life. And the fact is that their old prosecutor is still trying to get me — that is a bit crazy, isn’t it?
Please help me cover the cost of defending against this prosecution. I estimate it will cost me $25,000 in legal fees. I’d be very grateful if you could help me, by making a secure donation