In Defense of Free Speech

In the last few days, both Ed Brayton and Glenn Greenwald have written about the story of Ezra Levant, a Canadian conservative who’s currently under investigation by the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Levant’s “crime” was republishing the Mohammed cartoons first printed in 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which spurred the filing of a complaint by a Canadian imam named Syed Soharwardy.

Before saying anything more, let’s get this out of the way: if Levant’s political views are as Greenwald describes them, then I fiercely disagree with them. However, in the current matter, that is completely irrelevant. There are many views I disagree with, but I’ve never advocated that the expression of those views be banned by law, nor will I. The free and open exchange of ideas, no matter how scornful, how pointed, or how rough-and-tumble, is the lifeblood of democracy and the means by which society has achieved every advance it has made. Only the most compelling circumstances, such as fraud or direct incitement to violence, justify any infringement upon it, and that is a burden of proof which the Canadian government has come nowhere near meeting in this instance. Their apparent willingness to censor Levant, to punish him for speaking his mind, is a foolish and reprehensible crime.

Free speech is the most fundamental right of a civilized society. In a sense, it is the right upon which all other rights depend, because free and unrestricted speech is the only way any society can hope to notice and correct its mistakes so that it can make moral progress. The moment we ban the expression of any idea, even if we do it with the best intentions in the world, we’ve set foot upon a fatally slippery slope. To do this is to say that there are policies that may no longer be questioned, aspects of society that may no longer be discussed – and down that path lie dogmatism, tyranny, and all the black and terrible evils that come with them. Once an idea is banned because it is too noxious, too radical, too subversive – and once people become used to this – then the line inevitably moves, and the next most radical idea becomes the new target. The only way to stop this process is to cut it off at the root – to declare that we will never countenance the banning of any idea, no matter how strongly we disagree with it.

The implicit rationale offered by the Alberta bureaucrats for their actions is that some views are “hateful”, that they hurt people’s feelings, and that people have a right not to have their feelings hurt. This is stupid and arrant nonsense. No person has a right to be free of having to see or hear anything that offends them. If it were otherwise, then society would grind to a halt and all discussion would be silenced. Any person or group could exert a heckler’s veto over the content of others’ speech by choosing to take offense at the advocacy of any position they disagree with. After all, who’s to say whether one kind of idea is more “offensive” than another kind? Is not offense in the eye of the beholder?

What is the Alberta commission so afraid of? Whether Levant is in the wrong or in the right, whether the caricatures are healthy political debate or abhorrent racism, either way there can be no harm in publishing them. If an idea is good, then it should be freely expressed, so that others will come to adopt it. If an idea is bad, then it should also be freely expressed, so that others may refute it. Trying to censor a bad idea only forces it underground to fester, away from critical scrutiny. What’s worse, it gives that idea’s advocates the advantage of being able to cloak themselves in the mantle of martyrdom. The Alberta commission’s actions are an insult to the very citizens it claims to be serving. In essence, it’s saying that we don’t have the intelligence or the good sense to protect ourselves from bad ideas and need them to shield us. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can defeat bad ideas on a level playing field; we need no unfair, coercive advantages on our side, and we ask for none.

Nor is this censorship necessary to keep the peace in a diverse society. If there are any who would make that argument, I say in response that the United States of America is the most multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious nation that has ever existed. Yet we have never needed “hate speech” laws to keep the peace among all the various groups that make up our population. How could this be, if free speech is such a dangerous thing as this case would imply? The answer is that the U.S. protects the speech of all its people – and thus, when some groups publish unfair or discriminatory attacks, the ones who are attacked are free to respond and set the record straight. In this way, free speech is like society’s pressure valve. It actually promotes peace and harmony by ensuring all people that they have the right to have their voices heard. It’s suppression of speech, by contrast, that allows enmity and mistrust to breed until they spill over into violence. When people can’t express their concerns, others have no way to address those concerns.

On his own site, Levant has posted videos of his hearing before one of the commission’s agents. It does my heart good to see him speak out strongly for free speech and treat these bureaucrats with the contempt that they deserve. I’m glad that he’s defied them, and I hope he continues to do so. When free speech is infringed, civil disobedience is by far the best way to bring the censors’ efforts to naught and to expose the idiocy of their position. Tragically, far too many developed nations have shown themselves willing to forcibly silence people whose views are ruled “offensive”. Thanks to its Constitution, the United States of America has so far been a bulwark against this creeping tyranny. As the ridiculous ramifications of “hate speech” laws become more obvious, I hope we will once again stand as an example leading the rest of the world to recognition of the truth.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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