Libel case features Sun News host and a group of earnest law students
How on earth it ever came to this — a libel trial that has its roots in a 2006 book excerpt in Maclean’s magazine which sparked a lengthy public debate over free speech and led to people saying mean things and hurt feelings all round — I will never understand.
But still, there they are this week, in a tiny room at Ontario Superior Court, the allegedly injured (the plaintiff Khurrum Awan) and the alleged beast (the defendant Ezra Levant), two lawyers who are now themselves represented by other lawyers with many of the witnesses who have testified or are scheduled to do so also lawyers. (And here I thought lawyer jokes were based upon the fallacious premise that they screw over the rest of us, but not one another.)
At the end of the day, and I mean it literally and not in the way lawyers say it, I felt like a real and proper Canadian, in that I wanted to plead, à la Rodney King, people, can’t we all just get along?
Levant, a Toronto Sun writer and Sun News Network host, is the principled and passionate free-speech fighter who first came to widespread notice when, then with the Western Standard, he re-published the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad which first appeared in a Danish newspaper and sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.
That, in turn, led to Levant being unsuccessfully taken to the Alberta human rights commission on a “hate speech” complaint, and, as other such complaints surfaced against Maclean’s magazine, Levant became a full-fledged free speech advocate.
It’s his writing about those complaints — and Awan, who was the public face of the one in Ontario — which is at issue at trial.
He’s accused of libelling Awan, who was then just a law student, on his blog, where he repeatedly called the student a liar and suggested he was also an anti-Semite.
Awan is a principled fellow too, but back then, with three other Osgoode Hall students, he was also young, naive and, perhaps, more easily wounded.
Listening to his testimony in cross-examination Wednesday, and that of Naseem Mithoowani, another of the students, and that of Faisal Joseph, the big-time London, Ont., lawyer who ended up helping them for free when they realized just how much over their heads they were, it is easy to imagine how it happened.
(For the record, the piece that sparked the battle against Maclean’s was written by Mark Steyn, who is both one of the loveliest and funniest writers on the planet. It was an excerpt from his 2006 book called America Alone, and ran under the headline, “The future belongs to Islam.” Steyn’s theory, if I dare try to compress it, was that Muslims have the numbers, and were or soon would be taking advantage of Western governments’ eagerness to appease them.)
In any case, the piece caused a stir, and it’s easy to imagine how alarming it would have seemed to a group of Muslim students — particularly students of the law, who as a group tend to view themselves both romantically and as leaders.
As Mithoowani, who is now 31, saw it, the article had “a very obvious theme: Be suspicious of every single Muslim you meet, they are all the same, and they all wish to subject you to a violent form of jihad you’re not going to like…. I didn’t see the piece as attacking Islam. I saw it as attacking a population, and people,” she said.
Being good Canucks, though, the students wanted first to assure themselves they weren’t being over-sensitive, so they canvassed their friends, and determined they weren’t. Then they asked, “What do we as individuals do?”
They heard about press councils, but found that Maclean’s wasn’t a member of Ontario’s, so they figured, as Mithoowani put it, “Let’s talk to Maclean’s.”
But they didn’t think the magazine “would grant us a meeting,” so they enlisted the support of the Canadian Islamic Congress, and got their meeting.
“We were pretty keen,” Mithoowani said, giggling at the memory. “We were law students.” They planned to handle it as they would a law school presentation: Each would speak about a certain aspect; they would ask for a response piece from a “mutually acceptable author of some prominence,” and discussed asking for a donation from the magazine to a race relations foundation, maybe between $5,000 and $10,000.
“We had assumed,” she said, giggling again, “naively, in our minds, that it would be a bargaining process” and that they’d play it by ear.
When they arrived for the meeting, they were met by then-editor Ken Whyte, another senior editor and the magazine’s legal counsel, the famed Julian Porter.
The meeting deteriorated within minutes, she said, with Whyte flatly declaring he’d rather see Maclean’s go bankrupt than publish such a response, and Porter inquiring as to what legal options they might be considering.
“We hadn’t decided upon that,” Mithoowani said.
“Were you blackmailing Maclean’s?” Brian Shiller, Awan’s lawyer, asked.
“No,” said Mithoowani, giggling. “If anything, we were sort of, I don’t think we even wore a suit … it wasn’t, ‘Do this or we’re going to take you to court.’ ”
Afterwards, the students retired to a coffee shop. “We were shellshocked,” Mithoowani said. “What the heck just happened there? We thought, you know what, the entire meeting was completely dismissive, as if our point of view had no merit. It was hurtful.”
Later, before Mithoowani and Awan cornered Faisal Joseph in a parking lot one day after he’d given a speech and begged for his help in the human rights complaint they had already filed, the students wrote a letter to the late Ted Rogers, the boss of Rogers, which publishes Maclean’s, asking for a meeting. There’s something oddly trusting, even endearing, about that. Mithoowani couldn’t remember if they ever got an answer.
They sure didn’t strike me as a bunch of wild-eyed radicals looking to shake down a magazine. But then, what do I know? I’m such a good and proper Canadian that I too would have published those Danish cartoons, just as Ezra Levant did, and I only wish I could write like Mark Steyn, but I’d also be wearing a veil 24/7 if I lived in Quebec, to tell Premier Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois what I think of their stupid, and racist, “charter of values.”