Freedom of Expression


“You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs
that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”*

How does a democracy – Canada – simultaneously guard it’s citizens against hate speech and protect their right to freedom of expression, particularly when one person’s hate speech is another’s legitimate expression of opinion?

Last Saturday evening Mr. Donald S. Cherry effectively brought this issue to the forefront of Canadian colloquy.

In my circle of friends, this conversation began at the time of the English Language Debate prior to the Federal Election, sparked by the horrific comments made by and opinions held by Mr. Maxime Bernier.  The debate never really got off the ground at the time, though, because we were all so focussed on the battle between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer.  

Both Mr. Cherry and Mr. Bernier have had their fifteen minutes of fame and I’ve no wish to extend it for them.  I am, however, intrigued by and worried about this very abstruse issue.  

Last week I wrote about the emboldened and about the two political leaders whose incendiary rhetoric brought about this galvanization.  Hate has become a mainstream message and weapon.  Hateful discourse – sometimes cleverly disguised, sometimes overt – is now a recognized and well-utilized weapon in political arsenals, never mind that it terrifies, objectifies, shames, embarrasses and stigmatizes visible minorities, members of some religions, indigenous peoples, the diaspora and women.  Indeed all those the emboldened call “others”.

Qui Ta et consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit.

One who is silent, when one ought to have spoken and was able to, is taken to agree. [Latin proverb.]

Regardless of the laws on our books, Canadians must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to expressions of hate by speaking out against such avarice.  If we do not, our silence will be seen as indifference at best or tacit approval at worst.  That’s how the marginalized and vulnerable become victims.

This week, hearing the hatred for “others” expressed so freely on national television, I realized that we have arrived at yet another fork in the road. Even though Mr. Cherry’s comments may not have met the legal standard for prosecution as hate speech, they did clearly show contempt for a specific demographic.  Any public expression that ridicules, or evokes intolerance or xenophobia must be denounced (in this case by the network – and it was) but in a much broader sense, condemned by everyone – particularly those fortunate enough to have a voice or a platform that is widely viewed and shared.  

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction,
and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”**

In a subsequent CTV News interview, I heard the word intend quite often, but is that even relevant?  Not in my opinion.  We all, but most especially those in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, reporters, athletes, commentators, analysts et al – absolutely need to be smarter, more aware, more considerate, more thoughtful – kinder – than that.  No more excuses.  We all know and understand the power of words to be hurtful, divisive, spiteful and disrespectful.  No more excuses.  We do know how our words will be heard and understood by others.  No. More. Excuses.

Of the utmost importance:  Tackling hate speech does not, must never infringe or limit in any way our freedom of speech.  Balance and counterbalance.  Freedom of expression is the lynchpin for nearly every other form of freedom.  Despite its relevance and value, our right to freedom of expression is constantly tested and, despite its Charter protections (2B), needs our unwavering vigilance.

Freedom of expression is fundamental to the gathering of sufficient knowledge to form opinion, and to the search for truth. J. S. Mill contended that informed, considered judgment is possible only when all facts and ideas, from any/every source, have been scrutinized and that one’s own theories must then be adjudicated against opposing views.  More elegantly expressed in his own words:

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”**

The takeaway is that all points of view must be heard, considered and represented in the global forum.  Simply because something is distasteful or insulting does not necessarily make it untrue or invalid.  

One of the greatest privileges and obligations of our freedom of expression is being able to offer truth to power.  The mainstream media, the fifth estate, indeed every Canadian has the authority and responsibility to scrutinize all levels of government, to be a watchdog of sorts.  An integral component of any democracy is participation – overseeing and calling into question the legal, moral, financial, and effectual function of our elected officials.  To constantly evaluate our government’s competence. To do so there must be an unfettered and well-informed exchange of information, opinion and ideas.  Freedom of expression.

On a personal level, freedom of speech is the bedrock of human development, interaction and satisfaction.  The right to form one’s opinion, to share those opinions freely and to subsequently enjoy the evaluation, confirmation or rebuttal of others is how we grow and mature in thought and belief.  It accords value and dignity to each and every Canadian.  It is how we strive for and attain our full potential and for that reason alone our freedom of expression merits our most robust defence.

Another Gordian Knot.  Freedom of speech versus hate speech.  Where do we draw the line?  What is the ultimate or defining test?  If only agreeable, safe, non-controversial ideas needed protecting, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be obsolete.

This week Mr. Cherry has sparked a vigorous discussion on the topic of free speech, which is a a good thing in my book.

‘Til next time, y’all…

*Aaron Sorkin, from “The American President” – a line spoken by President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas.

I freely admit to being something of an Aaron Sorkin geek.  “The West Wing” is in my top five favourite television shows and “The American President” is in my top five favourite movies.  A lot of my friends love to hate on me for this unabashed love for  shows about the American presidency.  Still…  It’s the writing.  Mr. Sorkin is a beautiful wordsmith.

**John Stuart Mill 

Mr Mill was a British political economist and philosopher.  Both quotes are from his tome On Liberty which I struggled with (terribly) whilst at uni.  

One thought on “Freedom of Expression

  1. I remember LOVING The American President. Have not seen it in years and watching it now might make me dissolve in despair. But Michael Douglas did make a compelling prez! What bothers me is how people seem content to witness racism, sexism, various other kinds of violence—and THEN someone has their platform taken away, and all of a sudden free speech is the most pressing and urgent issue of our time. There’s some real manipulation going on here using Free Speech to divert real and essential conversations about rising nationalism, weird populism, and othering of vulnerable people. Free speech is important, but often is much less the point than it’s presented as being. Also, free speech—like everything—isn’t simple. People have to be a whole lot more thoughtful about these conversations. Anyway, to that end, I appreciate your post!

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