Ottawa, 16 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - A precedent-setting legal case on freedom of speech is underway in the west coast Canadian province of British Columbia.
A controversial newspaper columnist, Doug Collins, is before the province's human rights tribunal to face charges that a piece he wrote two years ago constitutes hate-mongering against Jews. It is illegal in British Columbia to publish material that discriminates against a group or causes it to be exposed to hatred. Canada's federal Criminal Code does not go quite so far, making it illegal only to willfully promote hatred.
It is the first time in Canada that a journalist has faced such charges. As a result, the hearing has set off a major debate about where to draw the line on freedom of speech in a democracy and on the freedom of the press.
Collins wrote a column attacking the 1994 movie "Schindler's List." He described the film as "Jewish propaganda" and said Hollywood "fixates on the Holocaust because Jews control the world's film capital." He also denied that six million Jews died in the Holocaust, dismissing the figure as "nonsense." Instead, Collins wrote, only "hundreds of thousands of Jews" were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
The Canadian Jewish Congress complained about the column. A spokesman, Mike Elterman, says the article touched all the "classic components of anti-Semitism." The Congress asked the human rights tribunal to issue a cease-and-desist order to ensure that the paper for which Collins writes, the "North Shore News," stops publishing such articles.
The landmark case is attracting enormous publicity and a large number of lawyers for both sides. Those defending the law are the Canadian Jewish Congress, the British Columbia Attorney General's Office, the provincial Human Rights Commission, the British Columbia Human Rights Coalition and the Chinese Benevolent Association. Their arguments, to one degree or another, will focus on the need to ensure legal restraints against spreading of hatred against anyone because of race or religion.
On Collins' side, are those who oppose the law, calling it unconstitutional. They include lawyers for the newspaper, the British Columbia Press Council and the provincial Civil Liberties Association. They argue that the anti-hatred provision is so vague and subjective that it is unconstitutional because it limits freedom of speech and press freedom -- both of which are guaranteed under Canada�s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Collins himself describes the case as "the most outrageous attack on freedom of the press that we have ever seen and one that smacks of trying to sue me for my own opinions, to which I am entitled."
The session began on Monday. In his opening arguments, the lawyer for the Canadian Jewish Congress, Gregory Walsh, said the column clearly violated the law because it targeted Jews for hatred because of their race and religion. He also argued that the column violated constitutional articles that prohibit discrimination and enshrine Canada's multicultural heritage.
Collins' lawyer, David Sutherland, says the case "could have a chilling effect on journalism because the law is vague and that makes it hard to rebut complaints." Besides, he says, the newspaper offers readers who feel offended the right to respond through letters to the editor. He says that if the complaint is upheld, it could "muzzle mainstream publications."
The newspaper says it is backing Collins in the case because "it goes right to the heart of what makes a democracy tick and what keeps it honest: the freedom to express opinions and ideas openly, the freedom to challenge commonly-accepted assumptions, the right to be wrong."
The press council says it's the first time a newspaper or magazine has had to justify an opinion piece before any government tribunal, a move it says encroaches on the constitutional guarantee of free speech and one that its lawyer, Roger McConchie, denounces as "the most significant legislative infringement of press freedom in the history of the province." He wants the law struck down as unconstitutional. McConchie says that, in essence, the province is saying that impolite or rude speech should be illegal and he terms that "an extraordinary attempt to control the press."
The press council makes clear that it does not condone Collins' views but, rather, is arguing the larger, constitutional issue of freedom of speech. McConchie told reporters outside the hearing that he doesn't like what Collins writes and can understand why the Jewish community is upset.
Collins has been a thorn in the side of minority groups for years. In 1979, he wrote a book in which he claimed immigrants were destroying English-speaking Canada. A few years later, he was rejected by the right-of-center Reform Party of Canada as a candidate for Parliamentary elections because the party's leader found his racial views to be extreme.
Lawyers for both sides in the case agreed that the issue will likely end up before the Supreme Court of Canada to make a ruling on when or where it is appropriate to limit "hateful speech" in Canada.