Free Speech on Trial--Author Mark Steyn goes on trial for giving offense

Earlier this month, the columnist Mark Steyn went on trial for being mean. Steyn’s offense was to have published, in the fall of 2006, an excerpt from his book, America Alone, in the Canadian newsweekly Maclean’s. In it, Steyn advanced the provocative but by no means untenable argument that plunging birthrates in Europe would precipitate a demographic decline, forcing Continental countries to reach an “accommodation with their radicalized Islamic compatriots.” Europe’s future, Steyn suggested, “belongs to Islam.” Islamic radicals, one might think, would be heartened by the backhanded vote of confidence. Instead, led by a group called the Canadian Islamic... snip

If the judges were inept, the prosecution was scarcely more competent. Attempting to prove Steyn’s “Islamophobic” views, the prosecution’s lawyers summoned Andrew Rippin, an expert on Islam and a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. At issue was Steyn’s use of the word “Mohammedan” to describe Muslims.

The prosecution charged that this was insulting, possibly even hateful. Only, their star witness disagreed. Professor Rippin pointed out that just as Christians adopted the name of Christ, Muslims in various parts of the world referred to themselves as followers of the prophet Mohammed. “The prosecution was so stupid that their own expert witness made the case for Steyn,” Levant says.

Similarly wince-inducing moments were a regular feature of the five-day hearing. All the more so if one happened to be a supporter of free speech. One such moment came when Faisal Joseph, the lawyer for the complainants, accused Steyn of failing to provide alternative points of view in his article. In a trial about hate speech, it was the equivalent of saying that all journalism that didn’t meet Joseph’s specifications was punishable as hate. Equally revealing was a comment from Dean Steacy, an investigator for the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

When asked what value he gives to free speech in his investigations, Steacy breezily dismissed the question. “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value,” he said.

With the tribunal thus revealed as a travesty of justice, Steyn and Maclean’s wisely decided to focus their attention on the absurdity of the proceedings. Maclean’s lawyers refused to provide any witnesses. Meanwhile, Steyn said that he would be happy to loose, if only to demonstrate how far the Human Rights Commission had gone in trampling on freedom of speech and the liberty of the press in Canada. As he put it to one interviewer: “We want to lose so we can take it to a real court and if necessary up to the Supreme Court of Canada and we can get the ancient liberties of free-born Canadian citizens that have been taken away from them by tribunals like this.”