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Speaking of freedom

By Walker Morrow
web posted June 14, 2010

Debates are won and lost on how they are framed. Perhaps not in the world of reason, but certainly in the world of politics, you always want to be the one who is setting the terms of the discussion – in political circles, framing can be the difference between winning a campaign and losing it.

For instance, I've been involved in a small campaign, for a few years now, to abolish the speech provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA). This speech provision is Section 13(1) of the CHRA, which states that, and I quote:

13. (1) It is a discriminatory practice for a person or a group of persons acting in concert to communicate telephonically or to cause to be so communicated, repeatedly, in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament, any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.

Put into action, Section 13(1) has become a censorship clause. It's used to go after people – mainly neo-Nazi types – for 'discriminatory' website content, which is, after all, telecommunication.

To give you an idea of the threat-level of the people punished under Section 13(1), the first was a fellow by the name of John Ross Taylor, who put anti-Semitic messages on his answering machine and then encouraged people to phone in so they'd hear whatever junk it was that he'd recorded. So let's take it as read that the sorts of people generally punished under Section 13(1) aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the shed.

Some of them are fairly disgusting individuals to boot, I'll admit. But this, of course, does not mean that they shouldn't be afforded freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of freedoms. It's the one that allows us to have all others. Without freedom of speech we have very little as a society, because without that very precious freedom what we think cannot be verbalized; our very thoughts are criminal. And even the stupidest and most bigoted among us deserve to have this freedom to think, to verbalize their thoughts – because if they don't have it, it means that the rest of us don't have it either.

But I digress. This campaign to put an end to Section 13(1) has not been particularly official – it's been dragged along by a small army of writers and bloggers and podcasters and broadcasters, of whom I am just one among many. And I don't mean to complain, but probably the greatest hurdle in fighting Section 13(1) ( other than the fact that very few people actually know what it is or what it does ), is the fact that nobody actually seems to agree on what freedom of speech really is.

Seriously. Have a discussion with someone about freedom of speech, I dare you. More often than not, people will say that yes, they're all for freedom of speech...just not in certain cases. They believe in freedom of speech with exceptions.

The fact that freedom of speech with exceptions isn't actually true freedom of speech seems lost on these people. They're paying lip service to a basic freedom. They're saying that they want freedom in ideal circumstances, but a lack of freedom when it suits whatever standard of decency or morality or propriety that they might have at any other given time.

In other words, they don't believe in freedom of speech. But try telling them that. If these people could just admit that no, they don't believe in free speech, then we could get somewhere – I'd present my argument, they'd present theirs, and we'd hammer something out. Hopefully by the end of the conversation I've managed to convince the other person that my view of unfettered freedom in all matters speechy is the way to go.

But taking that first step, making that first admittance that freedom with limits is the exact same thing as not having true freedom, can be a major obstacle.

And then, of course, there are the people who don't even try to delude themselves: they simply don't believe in freedom of speech, and they're quite willing to say so and argue for censorship.

Now, I'm generalizing here. Some people are more reasonable than in the examples above, or they haven't thought of the issue in the way that I just laid it out.  And above and beyond this, some of you are undoubtedly asking: who is to say that I'm not just creating some great big straw-man argument with these hypothetical people and hypothetical conversations about freedom of speech anyway? Can I provide an example? Can I actually show how the debate about freedom of speech in Canada is framed?

Well, I'm happy to oblige. In fact, I'll go directly to one of the sources of the Section 13(1) problem: in testimony before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal - the body created to hear complaints investigated by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) and uphold Section 13(1) - during its hearing into the case of Warman v. Lemire, CHRC investigator Dean Steacy infamously said:

"Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value."

Seriously, he said that. Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself, right here (page 4793).

Now can you see what people like me are up against? It's not even that we're arguing against public opinion, although we are. The very people charged with enforcing the Canadian Human Rights Act don't believe in freedom of speech, and these are the people who, if and when the time comes, could very well be looking into any and all of our behavior.

But there are rays of hope, moments when civil liberty nuts like me can feel some small measure of satisfaction, can feel that the debate about freedom of speech in this country is not entirely lost to the censorious side.

This piece in the National Post is one of those moments. It's a small story, really, but it encouraged me just the same, for it seems that Salman Rushdie, of 'Satanic Verses' fatwa fame, and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel had a back-and-forth discussion on the nature of free speech in Toronto just recently.

It's not a major story. The Salman Rushie fatwa, when held up in the light of Islamic attacks and cultivated movements against cartoonists like Lars Vilks or Kurt Westergaard, seems like the proverbial toe dipping into current waters. Not, I'm sure, that it seems that way to Salman Rushdie, who I have true sympathy for.

And Eli Wiesel, for his part, is still a man who is dealing with the issues of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial – or at least, that seemed to be his focus the other night – which, while important issues to be sure, are a long way behind us in historical miles. (But then, as a Holocaust survivor himself, I'm sure he feels differently).

At any rate, their view of freedom of speech, while not seemingly as absolutist as mine, gives an absolutist like me hope:

"It would be very inappropriate to think of any system of ideas as something that should be protected from debate," Mr. Rushdie said. "This is in a way at the heart of the free-speech argument, that you should by all means protect individuals against discrimination by reason of whatever their belief system may be. But the beliefs themselves are open for debate, criticism, satire, and all kinds of disrespectful remarks."

[...]

Mr. Wiesel agreed to a point that religious defamation should not be illegal. He said religion is like money and love. "It all depends what you do with it," he said. It can and should be noble, but it can also be a vehicle for fanaticism.

He said the sole exception should be Holocaust denial, which must be banned. And the sole exception to that exception, he said, is America, where he lives, and where free speech is regarded as such a fundamental part of life.

"I don't want to touch the First Amendment," he said.

Ah...music to my ears. I disagree with Mr. Wiesel on the issue of Holocaust denial (I'd rather deniers merely be marginalized in society; to punish them legally gives some seeming undeserved credence to their anti-Semitism), but at least his default is freedom. It looks like he and Salman agree on that point at least.

Now, if only they were employed by the Canadian government. "I don't want to touch the First Amendment' versus 'Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value". When it comes to framing a discussion, I'm glad that we still have people like Salman Rushdie and Eli Wiesel around to keep things sane. Without folks like them, I'm afraid it's the Dean Steacy-types of this world who would prevail, and there are only so many 'American values' in this world that can be ignored before things start to go bad. ESR

This is Walker Morrow's first contribution to Enter Stage Right. © 2010 Walker Morrow.

 

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