Doug Christie’s selective free-speech activism

Christie, a B.C. lawyer known as “Counsel for the damned” because of his advocacy on behalf of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, passed away from liver cancer last week at age 66.

I strongly believe that even people whose views I find repellent should have the right to express these views, so I always had a kind of grudging respect for Christie.  But I also felt that the guy went beyond merely representing extreme right-wingers in court, and actually believed in their cause.  Tom Hawthorn, in a vicious poison-pen “obituary” in The Tyee, goes further, and notes that Christie tried to stifle free speech as often as he defended it:

On his website, Christie grandiloquently declared himself to be “Canada’s greatest free speech defender.” What nonsense. When did Christie ever defend speech with which he did not agree? He gained a national platform defending clients against hate-crimes laws and human-rights tribunals, but less well remembered was his own frequent use of the courts to stifle the speech of opponents.

In the late 1990s, Christie represented clients who sued newspaper cartoonist Josh Beutel, the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association, the author Warren Kinsella, a college professor in B.C., and a television station in Kelowna. (The latter was a case in which I was to become an unwilling figure. More about that later.) “I do believe this is a concerted effort on the part of members of the extreme right to stifle those who are dealing with hate-mongers,” Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress said at the time.

In 1984, Christie sued Edmonton Sun columnist John Geiger for describing Christie’s Western separatist movement as “just an Alberta version of the Ku Klux Klan.” The lawyer was awarded $30,000 in damages, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The following year, Vancouver radio hotline host Gary Bannerman delivered an editorial in which he said, “Doug Christie has aligned himself so many times with these perverted monsters that he has to be viewed as one himself, in my view.” Christie sued. A jury ruled the comment to be defamatory, but fair comment.

No publication was too small, no comment too innocuous. In 1997, Christie threatened the Martlet student newspaper at the University of Victoria with a lawsuit for publishing an editorial describing members of his Canadian Free Speech League as “extremist thugs.” The students consulted a lawyer and refused Christie’s demand of a retraction. Who defended free speech in that round?

Recently, Christie told CBC’s As It Happens: “Free speech is the one thing you have to give to your worst enemy if you want to keep it for yourself.” The quotation was included in the CBC’s online obituary and, on Twitter, good people cited and retweeted the comment without knowing the hypocrisy behind it. It’s a fine sentiment, of course, but one Christie did not practice.

[…]

In 1998, I got a front-row seat to Christie’s courtroom theatrics. Eileen and Claus Pressler of Salmon Arm sued college professor David Lethbridge and Westcom TV Group for a report that aired on CHBC. The lawyer for Westcom subpoenaed me to testify about a story I’d written a few years earlier for The Province in which the Presslers were identified as local sponsors of a tour by David Irving, the notorious British author who discounts the Holocaust.

My time on the stand was a farce. I was ordered to surrender a notebook, which was then entered into evidence. It was placed in a plastic bag like a dagger from a murder scene. At one point, Christie caused a fuss because the stated number of pages on the front of the notebook did not match the number of pages he counted in the notebook. He made allegations of perfidy until a lawyer for the other defendant pointed out the notebook had lines on both sides of the page.

We were nearing the conclusion of my testimony when Christie barked, “Are you a Jew?”

The words hung in the courtroom.

I was stunned. I blinked several times in disbelief. Had I heard what I thought I’d heard? “Are you a Jew?” What the hell kind of question is that? I wondered what had sparked the question. Of course. I had made a “solemn affirmation” instead of swearing an oath on the Bible. I turned from Christie to look at the judge, who nodded his head as though I were to answer. “No,” I told the court.

In the end, Christie was for the extreme right what Lynne Stewart was for the extreme left: both crossed the line between defending the most hated members of society to the greatest extent possible, and actively supporting their clients’ radical causes.  The former is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system; the latter makes a mockery of it.

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One thought on “Doug Christie’s selective free-speech activism

  1. Being from south of the 49th parallel, I wouldn’t know Doug Christie if he was singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied through a megaphone while burning a cross in someone’s yard, but the above piece slams him as a free-speech hypocrite for defending unpopular speech against government censorship but prosecuting (or threatening to prosecute) private actions for defamation. I fail to see the hypocrisy. There is a substantial difference between speech free from censorship and defamation free from consequential legal damages. Few libertarians would argue that there should be no legal recourse for defamation.

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