The Financial Post
Sunday, May 2, 1997

Free Speech isn't just for Media

by David Frum

Lucky Doug Collins!

Collins, as pretty much everybody in the country now knows, is the Vancouver newspaper columnist who has been charged with a hate crime by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission for denying in print the reality of the Holocaust. That may not sound like good luck to you, but think again.

In the past three weeks, Collins has been hailed even by his very worst enemies as a martyr to the cause of freedom of the press. Our own Allan Fotheringham has sprung to his defence. So has the Globe and Mail editorial page.

To assess the measure of Collins' luck, imagine for a moment what might have happened to him had he not been a journalist. Suppose, just for instance, he had been the manager of a shoe factory, and had expressed his disbelief in the Holocaust in the company lunchroom. Any one of the employees who heard him could have brought exactly the same charges against him before the local human rights commission.

But would there then have been a column by Allan Fotheringham or an editorial in the Globe and Mail? Somehow, I doubt it.

What is most astonishing about the Collins case is not that Collins is the very first journalist ever to have been investigated by a human rights commission for remarks made in print -- although he is the first, and that is astonishing enough. What is most astonishing is that for close to 30 years now, people other than journalists have again and again been hauled in front of administrative bodies to be called to account for words they have uttered in their places of work.

Given our history of disdain for the free speech rights of non-journalists, the uproar over the investigation of Collins looks much less like an inspirational protest in defence of liberty, and much more like the special pleading of a powerful and privileged profession.

Consider what could have happened to Collins had he been the owner of a shoe factory.

His files could have been searched without a warrant by agents of the commission. The legal expenses of the person who complained about him would be absorbed by the government, while he paid all his own. The body that investigates him is the same body that determines his case: prosecutor and judge are for all practical purposes one and the same.

No Legal Privileges

Someone investigated by a human rights commission faces something that is in many ways more serious than a criminal prosecution. Only the most heinous crimes carry the lifelong odium that attaches to a conviction for violating a human rights code. And yet, despite the severity of the charge against him, he enjoys none of the legal privileges enjoyed by a drunk who shoves someone in a barroom, including the right to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and the right not to be forced to testify against himself.

If it is wrong to treat a journalist that way, why is it right to treat anyone else that way?

How did journalists persuade the rest of society that they ought to be regarded as some privileged caste, immune from the ordinary burdens of the laws?

It is often said in defence of journalists that a free press is indispensable to a free society. I wholeheartedly agree. Make no mistake: the investigation of Doug Collins is a terrifying attack on our liberties.

Collins, unlike James Keegstra and Malcolm Ross (who propounded similar poisonous views) is not entrusted with the education of the young. He is not even an employee of the state. So long as he avoids libelling anyone, using obscene words, or falling into one of the other small and well-established exceptions to the rule of free speech, he ought to be free to say what he likes, no matter how repulsive or even lunatic.

And if he can find a publisher whose standards are low enough, he should be free to publish those views.

To their credit, our journalists seem to understand that. What they don't understand is that the rights that belong to Doug Collins ought to belong equally to all.

They don't understand that the Doug Collins case is just the natural, logical extension of the powers the human rights commissions have asserted in the past.

And what they understand least of all is that these bodies simply have no legitimate place in a free society bound by the rule of law.

Copyright © 1997 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.