Protecting free speech: Wildrose style

While the Wildrose Alliance has gained a lot of momentum over the past couple of months with a provincial byelection victory and the election of a new leader, the party’s platform is now being closely scrutinized. In particular, the Wildrose Alliance’s desire to remove Section 3 of the Alberta Human Rights Act — formerly known as the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act — is raising some concerns.

Section 3 of the human rights act “prohibits the publication, issuing or display before the public of a representation that indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate, or that is likely to expose a person or class of persons to hatred or contempt,” according to the Alberta Human Rights Commission website.

Shawn Howard, a spokesperson for the Wildrose Alliance, said that the goal of removing Section 3 is to ensure that freedom of speech is protected. Howard believes people are entitled to their point of view, and Section 3 puts religious groups and the media at a disadvantage. The consequences of having a complaint filed against these groups can be expensive.

“You don’t have to agree with what people say,” said Howard.

He noted that removing Section 3 wouldn’t change anything, because you can still “pursue a criminal complaint with hate literature.”

“We want to see legitimate cases heard,” said Howard.

He said the current state of Section 3 diminishes real cases pertaining to gender and race.

Laurie Blakeman, Liberal MLA for Edmonton Centre and shadow minister for culture and community spirit had a different opinion on the manner.

“It would be official opposition’s position to be absolutely in disagreement with [the Wildrose Alliance stance],” she said. “You would lose any protection that people have against anything that shouldn’t be published or displayed. Do we want that in Alberta? I don’t think so.”

Blakeman said the Liberals are in favour of the pre-1996 Section 3 wording, and that it worked for Alberta.

The section used to only cover notices and signs that were discriminatory against other groups. Since 1996 however, its scope has expanded to include publications and public statements, and added in the wording “is likely to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt.”

“I think their problem with it is the freedom of speech part, but you do not throw out the baby with the bathwater here,” said Blakeman.

“You expose a large [portion] of our population to outright discrimination. Why would you do that? That’s un-Albertan.”

The Progressive Conservatives would not comment specifically on the matter.

Parker Hogan, a spokesperson for the ministry of culture and community spirit, said that the government had already made a suite of changes to the Human Rights Act, including Section 3, which were proclaimed Oct 1.

This was in reference to the controversial Bill 44, which was passed earlier in the year allowing parents to pull their children out of classes that taught religion, sexuality or sexual orientation. Bill 44 also enshrined gay rights into the act.

“The government has been active on changing the human rights act to make it more representative of society,” Hogan said.

Janet Keeping, president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, said Section 3 has been controversial for a very long time, and its scope has expanded from signs and notices to publications and public statements.

“Most ‘isms’ are covered by our act now,” said Keeping.

The foundation also wants to revert back to the pre-1996 wording of Section 3. Keeping believes the current wording could affect public policy debates on issues such as gay marriage or immigration.

“It’s not about right or left. It’s a concern of free speech,” said Keeping. “It is complicated.”

The Alberta New Democrats were unavailable for comment.

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