Free-for-all

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.