Following the radical Islamists’ attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, many of us who air our opinions publicly on a regular basis have been forced to re-examine our stand on freedom of expression.
Some have come to the conclusion that while they believe in the general principle of freedom of speech, they accept the need for there to be certain limits, such as those envisioned in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Section 2 of the Charter grants to each Canadian—among other things—freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media. Section 1, however, limits such freedom, making it subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
And those so-called “reasonable limits” have not always been regarded as being reasonable by a noisy cross-section of Canadian society. After a public campaign, for instance, a piece of contentious anti-hate speech legislation—Section 13 of the Human Rights Act—was repealed in 2013, thanks to a private member’s bill from Alberta Conservative MP Brian Storseth. This pretty much left hate speech to be dealt with by criminal courts, not by human rights tribunals.
Under Canada’s Criminal Code, spreading hate against identifiable groups can carry up to a two-year prison sentence. The Code forbids hate propaganda, which it defines as “any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide.” And genocide is defined as the destruction of “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
Pretty strong stuff, eh?
So I suppose many of us who stand for free speech would find that propaganda that advocates or promotes genocide crosses some sort of line and could be reasonably restricted in a free and democratic society.
And, yet, it really bothers me to think that someone could be thrown in jail for something he or she said, rather than did. Yes, I agree that words do hurt, but it’s actions that kill, for example, not words. There’s that old adage, “Actions speak louder that words.” I like to draw the line at actions and leave words to be dealt with outside the courts.
Freedom of speech or expression—so long as the words are true and not libel or slander, that is to say, lies—is a fundamental human right, one of the most precious rights we enjoy. Without unfettered freedom of speech can there even be a democracy?
Something that’s often held up to support limits on free expression is pornography. I find pornography extremely distasteful, especially when minors are involved. But so long as porn is depicted without abuse or exploitation of any human or animal, then I believe it should be left it to be dealt with through peer- or other social-pressure.
Unless the sexual acts being depicted are themselves illegal and have actually occurred and can be proved to have caused harm to others, I’d let porn be—though I’ll chose to avoid it myself as a personal preference. I’ll leave that choice to others, though, and will not support the mandating of a ban as a reasonable limit on free expression.
The Roman Catholic Pope Francis recently waded in on the Charlie Hebdo debate, though, perhaps he’d been better to have left the debate to others. Pope Francis used what The Guardian website calls the “wife-beater’s defence,” seeming almost to suggest Charlie Hebdo had it coming. The pope reportedly said, as he pointed to an aide:
If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The pope’s sentiment on this is not at all helpful. I take exception on two counts.
Firstly, what sort of society condones the punching of someone because he insults you? Verbal insults should never be used to justify physical assault. Do so and we may as well turn over our society to the bullies among us.
Secondly, why shouldn’t I be allowed to make fun of the faith of others without fear of physical assault? Am I to believe all faiths—or even any faith at all—are worthy of my respect? I believe it’s socially responsible to tolerate all faiths. But give them all equal respect? No thank you, I will not.
Moreover, least of all will I respect the faith of Islamists and their Medieval Sharia. I’ll defend anyone’s right to be a Muslim, but I’ll not respect the faith of those Islamists who follow a strict interpretation of Sharia, which for many adherents acts as a cornerstone for that faith.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, and the recent scandal caused by Oxford University Press barring writers of its children’s books from referring to pigs or pork for fear of risking sales in the Middle East, or the Harper Collins atlases that don’t show the State of Israel has made it clearer to me that well-intentioned state-sponsored limits on free speech can quickly become assaults on free speech and, consequently, should be avoided.
Post Charlie Hebdo, I’ll be showing a more tolerant attitude towards those who mock church and mosque and condemn those who seek to silence them.