Jan. 18, 2015

Freedom of speech is not absolute

By Merv Unger

An uninformed public and media are dangerous. When people do not get basic facts they reach for conclusions. There have been a lot of conclusions by both the public and the media regarding the

Jan 18, 2015

By Merv Unger

Do we really have freedom of speech, or is it a myth that we apply when convenient? 

The terror attacks in Paris brought up the question most recently, journalists especially, claiming the right to insult a religion and it's icon under the guise of "free speech". It doesn't matter which religion - any religion is a group of people having certain beliefs. Should we have a right to hurt anyone's feelings just because we feel like it? When we do that we actually infringe on their rights.

That doesn't justify terrorist attacks anywhere, but raises the question of whether we have a moral right to insult simply because we have a right to?

We can provoke a cornered, rabid dog with a stick, but that is not wise. Just because we have that right doesn't mean we should do it. 

It's not just in far-off lands. Canadian magazine publisher and commentator Ezra Levant was the subject of a terror attack for publishing a controversial cartoon of someone's religious icon. In this case, however, the terrorists were Alberta's so-called Human Rights Commission. They fought tooth and nail to deny Levant's rights.

When Hollywood celebrities constantly attack and demean religions - any religions, or political beliefs. the defence is always "it was comedy." Does that make it right?

Political Correctness is censorship, the main enemy of free speech and expression.

It may be legal to do so, but it is not morally right to say anything we want, regardless of whether it is legal.

Our universities, the supposed bastions of free thought and ideas, are the biggest offenders. Oxford University just announced a ban on the use of the word "pork" from all texts in the name of not wanting to offend some religions.

Free speech includes racist comments or homophobic remarks, virtually any topic, but decency forbids such comments. Nanaimo went through that experience only a couple of months ago, denying freedom of speech when councillors didn't like a distant individual's strongly-held religious beliefs.

Some political views are also not acceptable in some quarters. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went through that experience when Columbia University shut down a slated speech she was scheduled to make. Her political beliefs and track record were deemed offensive. Ottawa University went to great pains to deny right-wing political commentator Ann Coulter the right to speak at its campus.

You don't have to go that far, the University of Victoria has harassed pro-life student groups because they didn't like their free speech message. The case was taken to court and a judge agreed that freedom of speech can be curtailed on university property. That's reprehensible.

Our own governments over the years have tried to establish limits by labelling some speech as "hate". That's an even scarier standard. That does not judge the speech, but the intent of the speech, what was in the speakers mind at the time. How can anyone determine the intent of what was said? And who gets the power to make that determination? In the Levant case, that's exactly what happened when he was interrogated by the human rights zealots - asking him what his intent was.

That type of power should never, ever be vested in someone with a predetermined agenda, like selective human rights commissions with a specific political agenda.

These examples show both sides of the argument – that we should value free speech, but also that it will never be totally free. Freedom of speech is not absolute, it carries with it responsibility, a limit on the indefensible.

So what really is free speech? Is it absolute? Or is it a tool of political convenience? I have always interpreted freedom of speech as having the right to say whatever you agree with.

Merv Unger is a retired journalist living in Nanaimo, B.C.