bill ayers: "as public space contracts, the real victim becomes truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom"

A while back in my Intellectual Freedom and the Public Library course, I encountered an interesting shift of ideas. Larry Alexander, while arguing that freedom of expression is not a human right (I disagree!), points out that free speech is less about the right of the speaker, than the rights of potential listeners. Alexander uses the example of a government banning the works of Karl Marx. Marx himself is dead, so his rights cannot be infringed on; if Marx is banned, our opportunity to encounter his ideas - and so, our own freedom of expression - are being denied.

This was the central issue in Canada's refusal to allow George Galloway entry into the country. Galloway is not a Canadian citizen, so his Charter rights were not being infringed, but ours were. Canadians have - or are supposed to have, anyway - rights of freedom of association and expression. We have a right to see, meet and hear anyone we choose, and if those people pose no threat to the security of the country, we have a right to do so in our own towns and cities.

And this right should not be contingent on our agreement with the political views of the sitting government.

I was reminded of all this as I read this essay by Bill Ayers, who has, once again, been barred entry into Canada, ostensibly because of his radical past. In The Guardian:
In January this year, I was invited by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) to address the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education to be held on 16 June 2011 in Toronto. The topic would be "The responsibility of academics to contribute to public debates in the media."

I told the organisers then that while I would love to attend, I had been denied entry into Canada twice in the past few years – once in Calgary, and later at Island Airport – and that while lawyers on both sides of the border were engaging the issue, we were being met again and again by bureaucratic gibberish and classic rule-by-no-one. The president of OCUFA sent a letter to the Canada Border Services Agency hoping to resolve the matter, and received a boiler-plate response: "The CBSA is charged to ensure the security and prosperity of Canada by managing access of people and goods." I explained that my participation in the conference would jeopardise neither, and promised to spend a lot of money while in town, but I got the same response.

I'm in Chicago today, and a video of my talk has been sent to the conference. One irony in this situation is that the injured party in all of this is not me primarily, but the people who, for whatever reason, wanted to engage me in conversation. After all, I will talk to myself all day, and probably disagree and argue with myself as usual. But what of the Canadians who thought it might be useful to have a dialogue? Tough luck: your government is vigilantly watching over your security and prosperity.

There's another irony, of course, in the government preventing me from exercising the very responsibility I was invited to address. This is a basic issue of free and open debate and the democratic exchange of ideas – not one of a potential threat to the nation's security.

The technical issue here is that the border guard who turned me back in Calgary said that, according his computer, I had quite a lengthy arrest record. True, I said, arrests from sit-ins, occupations, and antiwar activities 40 years ago, and all misdemeanours. Well, he responded, you have one felony conviction, and that's why you will not get into Canada today.

But I don't have any felony convictions. Prove that you don't have any, he said.

Years and a lot of lawyer's fees later, I'm still having trouble disproving a negative, if you get the Catch-22 here. . . but wait! I just realised that some of those fees are, indeed, contributing to the prosperity of Canada! OK, I'll stay out.

I entered Canada a dozen times in the preceding decade – taking my kids to the Shakespeare or skiing in Banff, attending research conferences, speaking at universities – and have been to scores of other countries from Cyprus to China, Hong Kong to Beirut, the Netherlands to Chile. But perhaps those countries lack the thorough security sense of Canada.

As the public space contracts, the real victim becomes truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom itself.
Read it here: Can Canada really be scared of free-thinking?

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