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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • shifty

    While I am also in opposition to much of Ezra Levant’s right wing conservatism, I totally support him in his fight for free speech and freedom of the press. One side note, you seem to interchange the Canadian government with the Alberta government. One is federal, the other provincial. This is a provincial matter. The Canadian government has little to do with it.

  • http://www.thegreenatheist.com sduford

    America a world leader in the recognition of the truth?

    That was a joke right?

  • trailrider

    I have not seen this position expressed so well before. Well written and absolutely true. Thanks.

  • Jim Baerg

    This is the magazine I’ve seen on the news stands around here. It does have a conservative christian view on issues. I find much to disagree with in it, but in this and some other cases Levant’s magazine gets it right.

    IIRC his magazine was the only one available locally to publish the Danish Mohamed cartoons so people could know just what the fuss was about. Otherwise one would have to look for them on the internet.

    Jim Baerg 51°N 114°W

  • Steve Bowen

    Given that any representation of Mohammed, whether satirical or otherwise, is going to offend a strict follower of Islam, any move to legislate against hurting someone’s feelings is I agree a dangerous slippery slope. In the UK we have a law against Incitement to Racial Hatred which in 2005 a former home secretary proposed extending to cover religious hatred as well. Since then moves have been made to include gender and sexual orientation also. Luckily the burden of proof is quite high for a conviction for incitement to racial hatred. Parody and stereotyping do not fall into this category (i’m not suggesting that racial stereotyping is necessarily a good thing, merely that I don’t want people prosecuted for it).
    Somewhat ironically the last high profile conviction was a muslim who protested against the publication of the Mohammed cartoons and called for a violent response.

  • Crosius

    If you take a quick peek at the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, you’ll note:

    While Section 2 of the charter guarantees freedom of the press, and freedom of expression, section 1 (The Limitation Clause) and section 33 (The Notwithstanding Clause) define situations where the state may interfere with those rights. Our rights in Canada are not absolute. The specific situation must address (or sidestep) both section 1 & 33 of the Charter.

    Section 1 of the charter is probably where this case is being argued. The full text of the section is as follows:

    “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” (emphasis added)

    So if an argument can be made that the acts of the accused fall outside “reasonable limits,” it’s possible to find against him in this case.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Hear, hear.

    In addition to all the reasons you discussed, I would add one more. When you have laws restricting “hateful” speech, the question that’s always going to be on the table is this:

    Who watches the Watchmen?

    Who gets to decide? Who gets to decide for the rest of society what we may or may not say? Who gets to decide which limits on speech may or may not be “reasonable” or “demonstrably justified”?

    That is too much power for one person, or even for a small group of people, to have. And there is no way the power is not going to be abused, simply to restrict speech that the “deciders” don’t like.

    Example: Canada’s anti-porn laws, which were co-authored by notorious anti-porn activists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, were supposedly written to ban sexual material that was “violent” and “hateful” to women. But because of the broad way the law was written, it has been used to restrict gay male material — including non-fiction sex educational material, and even gay material that was not overall even particularly sexual.

    Who gets to decide? Who watches the Watchmen?

  • Samuel Skinner

    There actually was an instance of a society that was shut down because everyone had veto power: Poland, where the legislature that ruled the country just one noble could veto any idea. Not surprisingly the country was swallowed up by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Banning speech, while generally not as severe can have consequences, the most notable of which is making the society more divided. The people who can’t talk will begin to resent the special treatment and if the priviledged group starts expanding its “you can’t question this” all hell can break lose.

    On a note about the US; although it is true are free speech record is not as good as we trumpet, it is worth noticing that the gov mostly clamped down during war hysteria or anything sex related. However the government has never, to my knowledge, banned something because it would “Hurt feelings”.

  • Alex Weaver

    “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” (emphasis added)

    So if an argument can be made that the acts of the accused fall outside “reasonable limits,” it’s possible to find against him in this case.

    No such argument can be made. The supposed “right” to never be exposed to material one finds offensive is not a reasonable limit, and I sincerely hope you know it.

    You might also reread the second bit you’ve bolded.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com/ Chris Hallquist

    What are these opinions you disagree with so much, Adam? Greenwald was very vague about them.

  • Crosius

    I hope, Greta that we (the citizens) are the ones watching the watchers. Canadians have almost as dismal a track record as any other democracy when it comes to exercising our right to vote, but that’s our big opportunity to condemn an administration’s actions.

    I’d like to note that this article is about an investigation, not a trial. At this time, we’re talking about the state paying attention to one of it’s citizen’s (Syed Soharwardy) complaints, not about a state steam-rolling free speech. This is the part of the process preceding trial – the part where the state is invoking the accused citizen’s right to due process & to confront and refute the charges.

    The state has to collect evidence. Rendering a verdict on “gut feeling” without investigating would be worse for Canadians in the long run. It’s almost impossible to conceive of any investigative process that wouldn’t be adversarial, so I think it’s a bit premature to condemn the commission’s techniques – they have to ask these questions or they’re not following their mandate. Once Mr. Levant’s answers are a matter of public record, the Commission may exercise it’s mandate to fine or otherwise sanction Mr. Levant.

    Once the investigation concludes, if the state sanctions Levant, we can get angry about Canada’s suppression of free speech. It’s also just as possible that the commission will sanction Mr. Sohawardy, if the complaint is deemed malicious by the investigator.

    At that point, Mr. Levant can still appeal to the Head Commissioner, or request a full hearing.

    If the complaint gets as far as a hearing before the Human Rights Panel, I suspect the panel will not find against Ezra Levant unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the publication of the cartoon by Levant was intended to incite violence.

    I think it is far more likely that the complaint will be found to be “without merit” at some earlier point in the investigation.

    There are more egregious examples of hateful behaviour in this province than publishing a (potentially) insulting cartoon. While I object to the waste of time and money this complaint has created, I am glad that the Commission is performing their due-diligence by exercising their mandate to investigate.

  • BPfleger

    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.

    Ahhh… right. I guess. One wouldn’t actually get that impression from actual events or anything. Like maybe this: Impeach Bush t-shirt wearers forced to leave National Archives Constitution Display in DC
    Do truly love the it when you ‘merricans in your usual well-informed ways teach the rest of us how things *should* be. Ezra Levant is an attention whore whose principles end at his nose. Inform yourselves.

  • shifty

    Once again, on a procedural matter…this is a provincial hearing(Alberta), not a federal one.(Canada)
    Also, the complainant (Syed Soharwardy) has reportedly had a complaint against him by female members of his mosque regarding their treatment and lack of access.

    ezralevant.com/2008/01/inside-syed-soharwardys-mosque.html

    This link mind you comes from Ezra Levant’s website.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Samuel,

    There actually was an instance of a society that was shut down because everyone had veto power: Poland, where the legislature that ruled the country just one noble could veto any idea.

    That’s interesting. I haven’t heard this explanation for the fall of the Commonwealth before. Do you know where I could find out more about this? (Preferably without too much heavy reading; I’m interested, but not that interested.)

    Ezra Levant is an attention whore whose principles end at his nose.

    What does that have to do with anything? The question, as Ebon makes clear in the “I fiercely disagree with him” line, isn’t whether Mr. Levant is a good man. The question is what Levant should or should not be allowed to publish.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Apologies; that last blockquote should be addressed to BPfleger, not Samuel.

  • BPfleger

    Damien;

    You are perfectly correct in that the character of the person is not the issue. What I meant was that he has in other cases come down firmly on the other side – his principles change depending on whose speech we’re talking about. Try making a perfectly reasonable criticism of Israel for example and watch the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.

  • Alex Weaver

    So, basically, “even a stopped clock is right twice a day?”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I’d like to note that this article is about an investigation, not a trial. At this time, we’re talking about the state paying attention to one of it’s citizen’s (Syed Soharwardy) complaints, not about a state steam-rolling free speech. This is the part of the process preceding trial – the part where the state is invoking the accused citizen’s right to due process & to confront and refute the charges.

    …Once the investigation concludes, if the state sanctions Levant, we can get angry about Canada’s suppression of free speech.

    With all due respect, Crosius, you’re completely missing the point. The free-speech issue here has little to do with whether Levant is ultimately convicted by the commission or not. The far more serious problem is that there was an investigation in the first place. Simply because Levant published an idea that offended someone, he found himself hauled before a council of bureaucrats who demanded to know why he said what he said, and who are entitled to punish him if they don’t like the answers he gives. The very existence of such a power is deeply wrong and unjust, regardless of whether it’s actually used in this instance or not.

    That is the root problem: the mere existence of such a body exerts a powerful chilling effect on all people’s free speech. As Levant notes on his site, he’s already spent thousands of dollars and enormous amounts of time defending himself against these frivolous allegations of non-crimes. Even if he’s acquitted, those resources are spent. Whether he’s convicted or not, the message has already been broadcast loud and clear: say anything that offends anyone, and you too might end up before this tribunal and have to spend the time, effort and money defending yourself.

    The mere existence of this inquisition is an insult to justice, even if it ends up making the “right” decision. A rational government’s response would have been that there is no justification for launching an investigation in the first place, because the expression of ideas is not a crime.

  • Alex Weaver

    It occurs to me that this is the unfortunate end result of preferring “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

  • Anne Cognito

    According to the Wikipedia article on him, Mr. Levant is quite the goober. He opposes all lobbying from “special interests” like feminists, environmentalists, and First Nations (I guess this means Native Americans?). He also supports dismantling the minimum wage laws, universal health care, and pension plans in Canada, and was in favor of the secession of Quebec because it meant an end to bilingualism and multiculturalism in the rest of Canada.

    It’s still not right to allow anyone to be harassed for their views by the government or any other entity, no matter how odious those views are. I liked Ebonmuse’s point that free speech allows the airing of concerns before they spill over into violence and extremism – it also allows a responsible, intelligent governing body (ha!) to keep its finger on the pulse of its citizenry.

    Yes, the Bush Administration has committed atrocities of civil rights violations. Yes, the free press in America is in serious danger from the consolidation of news outlets into mass media conglomerations. However, there is a vigorous, totally legal trade in independent press outlets and weblogs which allow citizens to stay informed. If nothing else, there’s always National Public Radio – which is largely government funded!

  • Jim Baerg

    First Nations (I guess this means Native Americans?)

    Here that’s become the politically correct term for those Canadians whose ancestors came via the Bering Strait a good many millennia ago, rather than by boat across the Atlantic or Pacific.

    It’s unfortunate that Columbus’ navigation error resulted in a confusing name for the people then living in the Americas. Personally I think the anthropological term amerindians is the least bad name.

    Jim Baerg 51°N 114°W

  • http://www.reformislam.org Muslims Against Sharia

    Islamofascist-Dhimmi Axis Assault on Free Speech

    Muslims Against Sharia are proud to be the first Muslim group to publicly support Ezra Levant and denounce HRC inquisition.

    Proceedings against Ezra Levant are nothing short of ridiculous. HRC legitimizes radicals’ claims that Islam cannot be criticized and Freedom of Speech only applies to radical Muslims.

    But Ezra Levant is not alone. The latest casualties of Islamofascist-Dhimmi Axis Assault on Free Speech include Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, Fouad al-Farhan, Joe Kaufman, and Mark Steyn. Are you going to be next? http://muslimsagainstsharia.blogspot.com/2008/01/islamofascist-dhimmi-axis-assault-on.html

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    First, I agree with you in general and the arguments you made for free speech here seemed to be good (I didn’t analyze them thoroughly).

    But I still feel that I must point out something that is quite obvious and you are probably aware of that.

    Only the most compelling circumstances, such as fraud or direct incitement to violence, justify any infringement upon it

    Even if all the people in the world would agree, that the only time censorship would be allowed is when the speech is (i) a fraud and/or (ii) direct incitement to violence, then there would still be huge arguments over free speech since people would never agree 100% of the time if either of those rules is applicable to any given situation. You could see fraud and therefore demand censorship where I see it not and demand free speech.

  • mackrelmint

    Ezra Levant has an article about this today’s Globe and Mail as web exclusive content.
    Here’s the link to the original http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080120.wcomment0121/BNStory/National/home?cid=al_gam_mostview and in case you can’t get access I’ve copied the article here below:
    —————————————–
    Web-exclusive comment

    What a strange place Canada is
    EZRA LEVANT

    Special to Globe and Mail Update

    January 21, 2008 at 12:32 AM EST

    A few days ago, I was interrogated for 90 minutes by Shirlene McGovern, an officer of the government of Alberta. I have been accused of hurting people’s feelings because, two years ago, I published the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in the Western Standard magazine.

    Ms. McGovern’s business card said she was a “Human Rights Officer.” What a perfectly Orwellian title.

    Early in her interrogation, she said “I always ask people … what was your intent and purpose of your article?”

    It wasn’t even a question about what we had published in the magazine. It was a question about my private thoughts. I asked her why my private feelings were of interest to the government. She said, very calmly, that they would be a factor taken into account by the government in determining whether or not I was guilty.

    Officer McGovern said it as calmly as if I had asked her what time it was.

    When she’s doing government interrogations, she always asks people about their thoughts.

    It was so banal, so routine. When she walked in, she seemed happy. With a smile, she reached out her hand to shake mine. I refused — to me, nothing could have been more incongruous. Would I warmly greet a police officer who arrested me as a suspect in a crime? Then why should I do so for a thought crime? This was not normal; I would not normalize it with the pleasantries of polite society.

    This was not a high-school debating tournament where Human Rights Officer McGovern and I were equals, enjoying a shared interest in politics and publishing. I was there because I was compelled to be there by the government, and if I answered Officer McGovern’s political questions unsatisfactorily, the government could fine me thousands of dollars and order me to publicly apologize for holding the wrong views.

    I told her that the complaint process itself was a punishment. Even if I was eventually acquitted, I would still lose — hundreds of hours, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. That’s not an accident, that’s one of the tools of these commissions. Every journalist in the country has been taught a lesson: Censor yourself now, or be put through a costly wringer. I said all this and then Officer McGovern replied, “You’re entitled to your opinions, that’s for sure.”

    But that’s not for sure, is it? We’re only entitled to our opinions now if they don’t offend some very easily offended people.

    One of the complainants against me is someone I would describe as a radical Muslim imam, Syed Soharwardy. He grew up in the madrassas of Pakistan and he lectures on the Saudi circuit. He advocates sharia law for all countries, including Canada. His website is rife with Islamic supremacism — offensive to many Canadian Jews, gentiles, women and gays. But his sensitivities — his Saudi-Pakistani values — have been offended by me.

    And so now the secular government of Alberta is enforcing his fatwa against the cartoons.

    It’s the same for Mohamed Elmasry, the complainant against Maclean’s magazine for publishing an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s book, America Alone. Egyptian-born Elmasry has publicly said that any adult Jew in Israel is a legitimate target for a terrorist attack, a grossly offensive statement.

    Both the Canadian and B.C. Human Rights Commissions are now hearing his complaints against Maclean’s.

    How did it come to be that rough and, I would say, bigoted men such as Mr. Soharwardy and Mr. Elmasry could, by simply claiming that their tender feelings were hurt, sic a government bureaucracy on a magazine, or anyone for that matter?

    On this point, I agree with Mr. Soharwardy and Mr. Elmasry: I blame the Jews.

    A generation ago, illiberal elements in the “official” Jewish community pressed Canadian governments to introduce laws limiting free speech. The targets of those laws were invariably poor, unorganized, harmless neo-Nazi cranks and conspiracy theorists such as Ernst Zundel and Jim Keegstra — nobodies who were turned into international celebrities when they were prosecuted for their thought crimes.

    But now come Mr. Elmasry and Mr. Soharwardy and their ilk, using the very precedents set by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

    Before Mr. Soharwardy went to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, he went to the Calgary Police Service and demanded that they arrest me. He’s done that three times now, and they’ve rejected him every time. But he only had to ask the willing enforcers of the human rights commission once.

    What a strange place Canada is in 2008, where the police care more about human rights than the human rights commissions do, where fundamentalist Muslims use hate-speech laws drafted by secular Jews, and where a government bureaucrat can interrogate a publisher for 90 minutes, and be shocked when he won’t shake her hand in greeting.

    Ezra Levant, an Alberta lawyer and author, was publisher of the now-defunct Western Standard magazine from 2004 to 2007.
    ——————————————–

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    [NOTE: I will not respond to anybody but Ebonmuse in this thread]

    Ebonmuse,

    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…

    ..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.

    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 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…

    Just out of curiosity, how do you square any of that with banning and censoring dissent you disagree with?

    What is the Alberta commission so afraid of?

    I don’t know; what are you so afraid of?

    We can defeat bad ideas on a level playing field; we need no unfair, coercive advantages on our side, and we ask for none.

    If that’s true, why not level the playing field and let me speak freely?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    OK, it’s time for an administrative decision.

    Back in January 2009, I said this:

    The next time [cl] devotes a comment to complaining about how unfairly he’s being treated, I will take additional steps. That is a promise.

    Until now, I’ve never made good on this promise, although cl was obviously trying to bait me on several occasions. But this comment, which has no purpose whatsoever other than to whine about his allegedly unfair treatment at my hands and to demand that I pay attention to him, is well over the line. cl is clearly a man in search of martyrdom; so be it. He will not be returning as a commenter here.

    I’m closing this thread. If you have any comments on this decision, please contact me by e-mail.


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