Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.This is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. It was ratified in 1791, four years after the Constitution was ratified, along with the other nine amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights.
I'm a First Amendment nut. I view unfettered freedom of speech as one of the backbones of a free society, along with freedom of religion, the right to assemble, and the right to bodily integrity (not mentioned in the US Constitution).
When the First Amendment is in trouble, I have no trouble knowing where I stand. When the Nazis wanted to march through Skokie, Illinois, I was only 17, but it seemed clear to me that they must be allowed to do so. In the nearly 30 years since, my beliefs have been clarified and strengthened. Whether it be a t-shirt I agree with or a billboard I detest, I support every person's right to publicly express her or his views. The way to fight hate, in my opinion, is not to censor it, but to bring it out in the light of day. Fight messages of hate with messages of tolerance. Fight propaganda with truth.
Way back when our immigration applications were being processed, I had an extended email conversation with a woman who lives in Toronto. She's very progressive, and is also involved in queer issues. She was upset over the latest Fred Phelps outrage, and was both hurt and contemptuous that he was allowed to practice his brand of bigotry so publicly in the US. I remember her saying, "One person like that has the ability to hurt so many people. I don't see what on earth that has to do with free speech."
She was taken aback with my response, defending his right to spew. When she said, "In Canada, we believe..." I took it to mean that Canada's anti-hate-speech law has nearly universal acceptance. Since moving here, I've read several editorials and columns from Canadians who disagree with that, so now I see it isn't quite so one-sided.
I also see the laws in a new light. One way the US and Canada can be contrasted is individual vs community. Both countries value both, to be sure, but to me the emphasis is unmistakable. In the US, the individual's right to freedom of expression is supposed to trump any other concern. (Supposed to. Don't confuse John Ashcroft's and Alberto Gonzales's America with true American values.) Canada's anti-hate-speech law curtails an individual's right to say whatever he pleases in favour of the comfort of the community, and a community's right to exist free of harassment.
I still oppose it.
When looking online for more information about this from a Canadian perspective, most of what I found was written by Christian Conservatives bemoaning their right to spread homophobia. I obviously disagree with their views, but I don't know why they should be enjoined from publicly stating them.
This column was a little more moderate, although still from a conservative point of view. I was disappointed to find only conservatives and reactionaries opposed to the hate-speech laws, but no liberals or progressives. If this is an accurate representation, rather than an error in my research, it confirms a right-wing stereotype about the left. I'm hoping it's not the case.
As the "cartoon riots" were being discussed and debated last week, this caught my eye. Doug Saunders, writing in the Globe And Mail, ended his column with this:
As the riots were getting under way this week, Britain's Labour government attempted one solution to the dilemma, a law to make such cartoons completely illegal. Britain's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill would have outlawed any disrespectful expressions toward religions. It was drafted in response to an equally ill-conceived law that passed last summer in the wake of the July 7 bombings, which outlaws the expression of intolerant or hateful ideas in places of worship.Although I found the C-250 Bill when it was read in the House of Commons, I was unable to locate the text of the law itself, or even its proper name. Wikipedia is down and I can't find the exact law on any Canada government information site. I must not know what to look for. If you can fill me in, I'll edit this post to include your information.
That's one response to the multiple ironies of offence-giving cartoons versus offensive religious practices: Pass laws against unpleasant thoughts and ideas. During the long and angry parliamentary debate, it emerged that all manner of posters, cartoons, jokes and even sermons would be rendered illegal, as they implicitly are in Canada's unfortunate hate-speech laws.
The British government tried to define this sharia-like law as a necessary tool in a diverse society. As it turned out, the debate taught a more important lesson -- that what social diversity requires is not "tolerance," as the cliche would have it, or even laws to make our expressions sound "tolerant," but rather a greater latitude for intolerance.
Rowan Atkinson, the normally silent comedian of Mr. Bean fame, was suddenly rendered articulate, and spoke eloquently on Monday of the "right to criticize and ridicule religious beliefs and practices." To everyone's surprise, his side won: After Tony Blair made the mistake of leaving the House of Commons for five minutes, the bill came to a swift vote, and it was defeated by exactly one "Nay" -- indicating just how sharp this division has become. The Tory whip was forced to resign.
"Something I feel that I have learnt over this long campaign," Mr. Atkinson said afterward, in a surprisingly non-squeaky voice, "is that hate legislation, no matter how well-intended, is never more than a mechanism to paper over the cracks in society.
"Of course, I would sympathize with anyone who says, 'I would rather look at the wallpaper than the cracks,' and if such legislation can provide short-term comfort to vulnerable communities, that is all to the good. But it will never provide any solutions to the ills of society. In the absence of other action, behind the paper, the wall will continue to crumble."
A strikingly non-funny line from a master of visual humour. But if there was a lesson this week, it was that dreadful jokes can have a useful effect.
[Update: new commenter Wangmo posted a link to the hate-speech amendment to Canada's Criminal Code. Thank you!]
What are your thoughts about laws criminalizing hate propaganda? Why does Canada need this law? Whose interests does it serve? When can government censorship be justified?