OTTAWA -- The Canadian Human Rights commission is for the first time trying to shut down a site on the Internet.
The commission has asked that an independent human rights tribunal be appointed to look into complaints that a web site operated by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel incites hatred against Jews.
It will ask that Mr. Zundel be prohibited from posting material on the California-based site, which contains publications such as Did Six Million Really Die?
Although the human rights body has succeeded in the past in shutting down hate messages recorded on telephone answering machines, it is the first time it has gone after similar messages on the Internet.
The decision is certain to spark a debate over freedom of expression in cyberspace and the right of any government agency to control messages on the Internet.
"I'm as much interested in protecting freedom of speech as the next guy and I believe in a free and open debate in a democratic society like Canada", chief human rights commissioner Max Yalden said yesterday.
"But I don't think Zundel is engaged in free and open debate. I think he's engaged in inciting people against Jews and it's on that basis that we're proceeding."
But David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, which monitors Internet issues, questioned whether the commission even has the jurisdiction to regulate the Internet and especially Mr. Zundel's web site, since it is based at a server in California.
"Should people be able to say offensive and racist things? Yes, that's what free speech is all about", said Dr. Jones, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.
"The purpose of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is specifically to protect offensive speech, speech that people are trying to silence."
"Most controversial and offensive content on the Internet that people describe as hate propaganda doesn't actually fall within that legal definition."
The complaints against Mr. Zundel were filed by the Toronto Mayor's Committee on Community and Race Relations and Sabina Citron, the founder of the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association.
Ms. Citron has waged a 15-year battle against the German-born Mr. Zundel.
The federal government is also trying to deny Canadian citizenship to Mr. Zundel, who came to Canada in 1958.
No date has been set for the tribunal's hearings.