Banning offensive speech often backfires

Free speech has had a rough go lately, although in truth there really has never been a time when it wasn't under threat somewhere in the world. Last week we saw France's irreverently satirical Charlie Hebdo violently attacked for its work.

Free speech has had a rough go lately, although in truth there really has never been a time when it wasn’t under threat somewhere in the world.

Last week we saw France’s irreverently satirical Charlie Hebdo violently attacked for its work. Before that we witnessed the spectacle of media behemoth Sony cowering in the face of threats against its new movie The Interview, which portrayed the assassination of leader Kim Jong-un.

Free speech is a complicated subject to be sure. It is true that the open exchange of ideas is of fundamental importance to a properly functioning democracy, and any restrictions on free speech inevitably put a fallible (often corrupt) human in the position of arbiter of what is acceptable and what cannot be said. Many of us also see intrinsic value in being able to say just about anything we want without fear of recrimination.

At the same time, some expression does seem to be of so little social value and so likely to “provoke” other humans into causing harm that some limitations seem reasonable. It is not hard to see how those who think that silencing Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines – whose hate speech played a contributing role in the Rwandan genocide – would have been a good thing arrived at that conclusion.

It is often said by its detractors that free speech doesn’t mean speech without consequence but rather freedom from government sanction. In my view, and for the purposes of this column, free speech is incomplete without freedom from violence and threats of violence as well.

Philosophy aside, the argument that has always seemed most persuasive to me is that attempts to restrict speech we deem “offensive” or “hateful” – whether through the law or through violence – seem to fail spectacularly time and time again. The list of cautionary tales for those who believe that “something must be done” to protect groups against certain types of hateful or offensive expression is endless.

Take for example the case of Ezra Levant and the Danish cartoons. In 2006, conservative firebrand Ezra Levant was at the helm of a failing right-wing publication called the Western Standard. His career was meandering along after having been bounced from a sure seat in the House of Commons to make way for newly selected party leader Stephen Harper a few years earlier.

That was until a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, angering many Muslims around the world who believe that all visual representations of Mohammed are prohibited. Protests and outbursts of violence ensued.

Then as now, the mainstream Canadian media cowardly refused to publish the newsworthy cartoons. Levant seized on the opportunity, and did what no one else would do by running the source of all the controversy. An Alberta Muslim leader named Syed Soharwardy filed a complaint against the paper with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, claiming that the cartoons were hateful.

The complaint was ultimately withdrawn but the mere fact that it was filed in the first place has been a boon for Levant’s career. Levant has become a de facto leader for the anti-Muslim right in Canada. The filing of the complaint only served to worsen perceptions of the complainant’s religion and ultimately contributed to a successful movement to have Parliament repeal the section of the Canada human rights code which allow such complaints to begin with.

Whatever Soharwardy’s goals were in filing the complaint, it has clearly been a complete failure.

The victories for “extrajudicial” speech restrictions – like the attacks on Charlie Hebdo or the threats against Sony – have been similarly pyrrhic. Threats against a movie that most of us would probably never watched anyway have generated more publicity than money can buy and set back the progress North Korea has made in getting itself off the international pariah list.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a small French paper with a circulation that wouldn’t even qualify it for top 25 status if it were Canadian, have made the publication a household name and “provoked” a number of hate crimes against France’s Muslim population.

The list goes on. Salman Rushdie is famous today primarily because of the gross overreaction to his book The Satanic Verses.

Permitting hate speech may allow cartoonish bigots like gay-hating Fred Phelps, quran-burning Pastor Terry Jones and sharia-boosting Anjem Choudary to gain a handful of recruits. But their repellant views lead a great number more members of society to question, even disavow such prejudices.

In 2008, the Yukon underwent a review of its own Human Rights Act. The Yukon Human Rights Commission requested the authority to “prosecute” any individuals who “exposes an individual group to hatred or contempt.” The Yukon Party government of the time wisely refused the request, and they deserve some credit for doing so. Hopefully if a similar suggestion is made to a future Yukon government they will make the same decision.

Whatever their philosophical merits, hate speech laws have the effect of making martyrs out of morons and giving a soap box to individuals espousing views that enjoys very little currency in our society to begin with. Let the marketplace of ideas separate the wheat from the chaff, and don’t give undue oxygen to views that aren’t that popular to begin with.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and

raised Yukoner who lives and

practises law in Whitehorse.