Is it free speech... or incitement to hate?
The Herald has landed itself in a cauldron of scalding hot water, over its publication of a rather detestable letter in its August 3-9 edition.
The letter, written by Matt Barber, a far-right extremist in the United States, is as mean and intolerant as Christianity can be. It’s the kind of thing you see shared on Tea Party web sites in the United States. Indeed, it’s as if someone trolled a hook through the depths of the Internet, pulled up something ugly and slapped it on the pages of The Herald.
If you want to read the text, here’s a link: http://barbwire.com/2014/07/19/coming-christian-revolt/
Western Pride in Corner Brook has filed a human rights complaint with the police about the letter and LGBTQ activist Pamela Sheaves has indicated that she plans to do the same, while St. John’s Pride issued a letter saying they will not pursue legal remedies at this time, planning instead to “work closely with the Herald and the media at large to establish a forthcoming LBGTQ Style Guide for Journalists.”
I am an atheist so the column offends me on a number of levels – especially Barber’s accusation that the “secular left” is at war Christianity. I don’t agree with this. I think secular society in the western world is quite tolerant of various religious beliefs. If anything, it’s Christianity that has a hard time with changing societal mores. And that’s the whole point of Barber’s letter: the suggestion that Christianity is under attack.
This paragraph pretty much captures the gist of it:
“Though there are many, it is plain for all to see that abortion and ‘sexual liberation’ remain the two principal theaters in the ongoing culture war battlefront. To fully advance the causes of radical feminism, abortion-on-demand, unfettered sexual license, ‘gay marriage’ and the like, the pagan left must do away with religious free exercise altogether. Under the guise of ‘anti-discrimination,’ Christians today face discrimination at unprecedented levels.”
That’s nasty and I think inaccurate, but it does represent how a large number of fundamentalist Christians are feeling these days.
What rattles me most are the opening paragraphs, which invoke a mass murderer – a sniper on a rooftop – to symbolize the “cultural war” that Barber imagines. However, the ‘sniper’ is not Christians exacting revenge on the heathens. Quite the opposite: it’s the secular world assassinating the beliefs of Christians, one by one. The metaphor is bone-chilling and inaccurate, but I don’t think it qualifies as hate speech.
Lyle Curlew of Western Pride told CBC that he filed his complaint “under C-46, Section 19, which is ‘propaganda and the incitement of hate towards an identifiable group.’ So we are hoping to press charges.”
In a lengthy letter published in The Telegram, Curlew makes some very good points. But whether he makes the case for legal action is not so clear. Curlew repeatedly claims that Barber refers to homosexuality as “evil” but the only time Barber uses that word is in his conclusion, which goes like this:
“While there are those who will give way out of fear, weakness or a desire to conform to the world, there are many others who will not. Christians must peacefully come together, lock arms and redouble our resistance to evil.
“Even when that evil is adorned with the presidential seal and signature.”
The latter reference is to President Obama. The former is, well, not so clear. Barber talks about “peacefully” coming together to resist evil, which is language you will hear on thousands of church pulpits across North America. We can presume that he is talking about either homosexuality, abortion, feminism, promiscuity or all of the above, but can a judge be persuaded of that?
Frankly, I doubt it.
That’s the problem with Barber’s screed. I have read it several times, sentence by sentence, looking for hard evidence of hatred. Frankly, I can’t find it. As strongly as I disagree with Barber’s opinions, the fact is they are representative of a (hopefully small) segment of the Newfoundland and Labrador population. (St. John’s is a progressive city, but we also have an evangelical bible belt in this province with some pretty conservative views). I have heard callers to Open Line express opinions very similar to Barber’s. We recently had a premier-designate who stands firm against abortion. It is not hatred to believe this or to express it as a personally-held belief, especially under the banner of religious freedom.
And that’s exactly what Barber is doing in his diatribe: expressing a belief. We can be offended by it, we can refute and criticize it, we can even file a human rights complaint against it – but that complaint probably won’t be successfully prosecuted.
I could be wrong. As much as the letter offends and upsets me – and despite the sniper reference – I don’t think you will find the smoking gun here that justifies a legal case.
My mind is open on the question of legalities. Perhaps I’m mistaken on this. I realize that most people will be sickened and angered upon reading the letter. But please, after you calm down, go back and read it carefully – the way a lawyer would – and look for the most incendiary parts; the sentences you would quote in your legal case.
If you do this, I think you will see what I’m getting at.
As an aside, I was surprised to read the online poll today at cbc.ca/nl. To the statement, “An N.L Pride group has filed a human rights complaint against the Newfoundland Herald over an anti-gay letter,” only 39 percent (319 voters) said “I agree. The Herald shouldn’t have published a letter like that,” while 57 percent (495) voters said, “I don’t agree. Whatever happened to free speech?”
And free speech is a fragile thing. I am uneasy whenever any interest group attempts to smack down another group’s right to express an opinion. We should do so when truly necessary, but it’s something that must be approached with caution and weighed carefully by the justice system.
Furthermore, I get nervous when those offended start to define what subjects a media outlet can discuss, as happened when Kyle Curlew said this:
“The Newfoundland Herald is a television guide, not a political magazine or a religious magazine. I don't think that kind of discourse belongs in a television guide.”
First, Curlew is factually incorrect. The Herald was launched in 1946, nine years before television came to Newfoundland, and has always been a general interest magazine that covered a variety of topical material. But that’s minor stuff. What gets my goat is Curlew’s contention that the magazine should not be covering politics or religion. I value freedom of speech and when any interest group attempts to define what topics should and shouldn’t be discussed in any magazine, I get my back up pretty darn fast. This poorly-considered comment reveals that we are all capable of making mistakes in fact and judgment.
I am a former editor of The Herald. Would I have published that letter? Definitely not. It’s not local and the intolerant tone is not reflective of the way we talk to each other here. It doesn’t belong. The country of origin would make Barber’s diatribe easy to reject.
However, if the letter was written and signed by someone in this province, I would have been forced to consider it. It’s that free speech thing again. Chances are, I would have contacted the letter writer, expressed my concerns and told them the submission could not run in its current form. If they wanted to revise and try again, I would have another look at that point.
Herald editor Pam Pardy Ghent is in hot water over all this. I have corresponded with Ghent many times on a number of issues and know that the letter in no way reflects her value system. Ghent said she will formally respond to the controversy in next week’s Herald, a move that has already prompted accusations that the magazine is exploiting the controversy to boost copy sales. Whatever the motive, this wouldn’t be my approach – far better to get out in front of media immediately and either defend the letter or apologize for it.
In an NTV News interview that aired Friday, Ghent did express remorse and apologized for the Barber letter. I spoke with Ghent, who agreed to send me the following excerpt from her upcoming letter:
“We have had people reach out to us to say how angry they are. They will never buy our publication, they say. Others have asked for subscriptions. But the raw reality is this: many beautiful, wise, wonderful, and caring people were hurt and angered by Barber’s letter, and the fact that it was published in The Herald. And for that, I’m truly sorry.”
On her Facebook page, Ghent made a reference during July to being in her hometown of Harbour Mille. When I asked if she was in the office when the letter was selected for publication, she paused and said, “No. But everything that goes to print is my responsibility. And I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Ghent has been taking some pretty serious hits for a letter she didn’t approve. When I asked if it was selected by a junior editor, Ghent’s reply was the same: “Everything that is published in the magazine is my responsibility.”
Which is the right answer.
All things considered, I like the reasoned position of St. John’s Pride. They are upset about the letter but want to use it as a learning experience for the provincial media in general and The Herald in particular.
Because I think it’s safe to say that The Herald has learned a lesson from this.