There’s been an awful lot of chatter lately about Freedom of Speech, or lack of it, in Canada.  And it’s gotten fierce since Christie Blatchford was prevented, by some pretty vocal opposition, from speaking, at the University of Waterloo.  It’s a complicated case, but the quick and dirty version is this: Ms. Blatchford was invited to speak at the University of Waterloo.  Some people associated with the University didn’t want her to speak and they commandeered the podium.  They voiced their opposition to Ms. Blatchford by loudly chanting “Racist!” among other things.   Ms. Blatchford was told her safety could not be guaranteed and the event was cancelled.  There are a lot of other facts and blather about it, but really — who cares?  The real question is this: should we have free debate in Canada or not?

Most people get this question confused.  They think that freedom of speech is a Canadian right that cannot — or at least should not — be abrogated, especially at our universities.  This is not true.  Freedom of Speech is an American concept, and its relationship to Canada is in direct proportion to how much American TV you watch.  Ms. Blatchford does not have any absolute “right” in Canadian law to speak or be heard. 

This is where Canadians run into trouble because — once again — we are fighting the wrong battle.   It’s not whether we’re losing our ability to have open and reasonable discussion: it’s whether open and reasonable discussion should be allowed in the first place.  There are lots of very large, very influential groups in Canada who don’t want debate or anything even remotely resembling it.  This is not a wicked plot.  It’s just that they see their ideas as the ultimate moral truth, and they see no reason to discuss it any further.  They also see themselves as enlightened individuals on the frontlines of a battle against ignorance and intolerance.  They even call themselves “progressive.”

You don’t have to look much beyond our universities, which are the largest forums of thought (notice I didn’t say “free thought”) in our country, to see these “progressives” in action.  Our universities have been under mob rule for quite some time now.  There’s a litany of examples, but here are some of the most visible highlights.  In 2002, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Concordia University was violently disrupted (before he ever opened his mouth) and his appearance was cancelled.  In March, 2010, Ann Coulter, America’s resident nutbar, was threatened with legal action before she even arrived at the University of Ottawa and was shouted down once she got there – again, before she had uttered a word.  Her appearance was also cancelled.  We’ve already seen what happened to Christie Blatchford at Waterloo.  Similarly, over the last decade or so, Pro-Life (anti-abortion) groups and clubs have been either banned or had their message severely restricted on several university campuses — notably Victoria, Calgary, York and, most recently, Carleton University.  In November, 2008 Queens University actually instituted “dialogue facilitators,” students hired to patrol the campus, hunting out conversations which they deemed “offensive” and “educating” the perpetrators on more appropriate speech.

This stifling of public discussion on university campuses didn’t come out of nowhere.  It has a precedent in the highest shrine of public debate in Canada — Parliament.  In 1987, MP Svend Robinson and other members of the NDP took it upon themselves to heckle a speech by then President of the US, Ronald Reagan.  This was a small thing but it had a big impact because it made out-shouting one’s opponent a legitimate feature of the free exchange of ideas.  The NDP were so convinced Ronald Reagan was so wrong that they did not believe that Parliament or Canada was entitled to hear an uninterrupted speech by him — this brings us to the core of the problem.  Is free and open debate a Canadian right or not?  In 1987, Svend Robinson and the NDP did not think so.  Today, many groups agree with the NDP.  They believe that opinion and expression in Canada should be strictly regulated.  They also believe that certain points of view should not be expressed at all.  Ms. Blatchford’s experience at Waterloo is a perfect example of this.  These are not just fringe fascists or student groups using the mob to get their way.  There are large segments of our society who believe restrictions on opinion are of great benefit to us, and they are willing to use Canadian law to achieve these benefits. 

In Canada, freedom of speech may be a long standing and well guarded tradition, but it has no absolute guarantee in law.  The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that there can be limits placed on free speech in a free and democratic society.  Unfortunately, most ordinary people and free speech advocates are still labouring under the mistaken assumption that they have an inherent right called “freedom of speech” and that they need to defend it.  They are fighting the wrong battle.  We need to protect open debate first.  We need to stop the mob from closing off discussion, whether it be in the streets or in the courtroom.  Without that, we can never hope to elevate the discussion about freedom of speech beyond intimidation and resident Brown Shirts shouting “Racist!” until we all just get tired and go home.

8 thoughts on “Free-for-all

  1. Thanks for the enlightenment, I didn’t know “Freedom of Speech” was an American law, not Canadian. In a free society, we should have the right to sit/stand and debate any issue and not just run off at the mouth about anything we think will draw a crowd or pay big bucks.

  2. BJ Vandale refers to “freedom of speech” as an american “law” wheras JD calls it a “concept”; the two are not synononamys, so will yu give me the facts of which is correct
    moving on to other things, that I wiould like to get JDs take on the buz words “moving forward” and what “progress” really means

    1. The American “concept” of freedom of speech is enshrined as a “law” in their Constitution (the 1st Amendment.) The Canadian “concept” of freedom of speech which we think is the same as the Americans is not. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says Canadians have:
      (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

      However, there are several Canadian laws which limit our freedom of expression. Concept and law are not synonymous but in the American case the concept has been protected by law.

  3. My problem is with the term “racism” (i.e. no one who’s really thought about it can still say that “race” means much of anything). When discussions that have to do with race, or culture, as I prefer, are immediately termed racist, then discussion ends–one of the unintentional? consequences of identity politics. Yuk!

    1. I must confess I have only read at Ms. Blatchford’s book Helpless but calling her a “racist” is way out of line. Interestingly enough at least 2 of the bike lock protesters said they’d hadn’t read the book

  4. Keep in mind that the lefties, the Progressives, the National Socialist Democratic Party (Nazi) are the ones that kill their own. For the good of society (as they see it), don’t ya’ know!!!

  5. WD,
    You wrote: “…Freedom of Speech is an American concept …”

    You must be a fan of Dean Steacy (CHRC investigator) for he said exactly that in defending his discredited “investigations” of CHRC targets.

    You, and he, couldn’t be more wrong. The concept of free speech dates back millennia to ancient Greece and perhaps before. For example:

    Socrates at his trial: ‘If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, “Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.”‘

    Then there’s British law and tradition with the Magna Carta being a significant milestone leading to the English Bill of Rights, etc. all of which underpin Canadian legal traditions and system of justice;

    Voltaire: ‘I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.’

    From the French Revolution, ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man’

    John Stewart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

    So, the Americans hardly invented free speech. But they are arguably one its greatest defenders. They live up to their constitution. Canadian freedom of speech, on the other hand, is rather shriveled in comparison. Our Charter of Rights grants freedom of expression as a “fundamental” right which Section 13 of our “Human Rights” Act then effectively diminishes. Our various “Human Rights” Commissions and Tribunals make a mockery of the concept.

    I certainly agree with you that open debate needs to be protected from the mob. But that’s part and parcel of defending freedom of speech for all of us. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend watching all seven parts of the Steyn/Levant testimony. It’s well worth the time.

    1. I am not of fan of Steacy, all I’m saying is he did state a fact. The American concept of Free Speech is enshrined in their Constitution (the 1st Amendment) and it cannot be abridged. Whereas, we Canadians may think we have the same rights, but we don’t. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says
      (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

      It doesn’t say that government cannot put limits on our freedom, which they have already done. We have to keep the debate open first, in order to legally claw our rights back. Your examples are part of our tradition but in 21st century Canada they have no legal standing. Levant and Steyn are doing a good job but the real fight is in the courts.

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