Yes, you have a right to speak — now shut up

Peter Jackson
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I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Actually, that’s not true. I wouldn’t defend it to the death. I don’t think I have the guts to take a bullet over someone’s right to gab, even if I do feel strongly about it.

Furthermore, I wouldn’t always defend their right. I’d say, no, he can’t say that. That’s going too far. Someone slap a muzzle on him.

Human rights can’t exist in a vacuum.

No one should be free to do or say whatever they want with immunity.

We wouldn’t need laws if that were true. We would live in an ugly, chaotic hell reigned by hatred and greed, but … hey, at least we’d all be free. Except we wouldn’t.

Speech is not innocuous. It can have consequences. It may just offend or insult, but it may cause irreparable harm to groups or individuals.

If anyone thinks anti-Tutsi propaganda in newspapers and on radio had nothing to do with the Rwandan genocide, he or she is deluded. If anyone thinks leaking the name of a CIA agent doesn’t destroy careers and put lives in jeopardy, he is not living in the real world.

These are extreme examples, perhaps, but they illustrate that there are boundaries.

“They all want to strike a balance; they all want to draw a line,” Mark Steyn said of Canadian authorities in a recent hour-long interview with SUN-TV host Ezra Levant.

He was saying it not as a simple observation, but as a criticism, as if everyone should be allowed to spew out any sort of hateful bile without consequence.

Levant and Steyn are unlikely crusaders for free speech.

Both are actually facing legal action for utterances they’ve made in the past. Levant has been defending himself at the Ontario Supreme Court over accusations he slandered a young Muslim lawyer. Steyn is about to go to trial after being accused of defaming U.S. climatologist Michael Mann.

I call them “unlikely” crusaders, but perhaps that’s misleading. Because the limits of free speech are usually tested and challenged by those who have made a career of being insulting and offensive, of always being at loggerheads with the norms of common decency.

The most epic case for the rights of satirical expression in the U.S. came not from an innocent warrior toiling in the trenches, but from a wealthy porn baron defending his right to mock a TV evangelist.

Two sides of the same coin, in my opinion.

Levant and Steyn have focused most of their venom on Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was finally repealed last year. It was a provision against “hate speech” that both have come under the gun for, and that has, in many cases, resulted in monetary penalties against people who did little more than hurt someone’s feelings.

Levant cited the case of a comedian in a Vancouver bar who unleashed a stream of insults against a lesbian couple after being heckled.

Accounts vary, but it appears there was ugliness on both sides. And it’s hard to imagine how a modern comedian can be stuck with a $22,000 fine for having a dirty mouth in a venue where patrons are free to leave if they want.

Such episodes have little to do with Steyn’s upcoming trial, however. Steyn likes to suggest that Michael Mann is helping to create a kind of scientific correctness by using the court system to suppress debate.

Mann is doing nothing of the sort. He is quite specifically contesting Steyn’s characterization of him as a fraudster, pure and simple. It’s one thing to doubt a scientist’s findings; it’s another to say he made it up.

To suggest that debate over climate science is being suppressed is ludicrous.

It’s the personal, unsubstantiated attack that’s in question.

For the most part, I do defend Levant’s and Steyn’s right to free speech. It is a fundamental facet of our democracy.

And for the most part, I still wish they’d shut the hell up. 

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email:


(This story has been edited to correct information.)


Organizations: CIA

Geographic location: U.S., Vancouver

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Recent comments

  • crista
    March 27, 2014 - 21:49

    Reading your article and looking at in a way of rights???? it would get one thinking about social justice???? and if not, you can still be putting an arguement with your article if ???? anyone can under stand what you are writing about????

  • Mike Lorrey
    March 23, 2014 - 16:59

    Given the leftists of the Grauniad have been assiduous in their role in past decades as useful idiots in denying the existence of the Soviet gulags and 'mental hospitals', as well as the Maoist reeducation camps and Pol Pot's killing fields, you folks don't have a leg to stand on comparing climate skeptics to holocaust deniers. So, which do you think is more insulting: you calling me a denialist, or me calling you a useful idiot?

  • Kolnai
    March 20, 2014 - 13:57

    That's the stuff to give 'em! Can't take a bullet? Won't take a bullet more like. Why did the chicken cross the line? To get to the right answers. Offence – seems to be an awful lot of 'nots' these days, no? As in 'free speech does not include the right to offend'. But, uh - isn't that just its point? - to offend pompous bores and hypocrites who are only for the 'free' speech they agree with. This is a self-serving and utterly worthless sentiment. Duh! Of course I'm in favour of those who agree with me! And so is the dirty little fascist next door. And his mate who's in Al Qaeda. 'The science is settled', or there's a 'scientific' consensus etc. is likewise the bleating of sheep. He-ello?!! Insofar as its 'settled' and 'agreed on' by all 'reasonable men' it ain't science - where is your Popper? Don't answer that. But please be nice to one another out there. Even the Ayatollah Khomeni loved the little ones (lots). Speaking of which, has anyone ever seen any really funny cartoons about the prophet recently? The Danes don't know a good joke from a hole in the ground. No wonder there was trouble. There's an old edition of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical mag guest edited by Mohammed (or so they said!). It was a riot. And it caused one – their offices were bombed. Ah me, we need a new slogan for our times. How about: 'I'd like to teach the world to die/in perfect harmony', an update of the 70s Coke ad? Suicide bombers – they're the real thing alright. In the meantime, I'm sorry if my arse has offended your face. I'll just unscrew it.... O-oo-f! Better now. Hmm?

  • Keith
    March 20, 2014 - 13:31

    God if we could only get our four leading socialists (Wangersky, Jackson, Jones & Payne) to shut up. Don't ya' just love the balance in this rag.

  • Thomas LaBelle
    March 20, 2014 - 12:42

    You sir, are an embarrassment to your profession. Without the free speech that you just exercised with "impunity", you, as Bob Dylan once said, might as well be in a swamp. Shut up? No, please sir, by all means continue to show the world how the left operates. Free speech for anyone who agrees.

  • Jon
    March 20, 2014 - 06:42

    Yes, Peter Jackson, you also have a right to write — but you're not right. You don't know what you're writing about. Please put down your pen and pick up a shovel.

  • Herb Morrison
    March 19, 2014 - 19:56

    If anyone who exercises their Charter-guaranteed right to free speech, they should be willing to be accountable for what they might speak or write when utilizing any public medium regardless of the consequences, which they might incur. When people are granted immunity from public scrutiny/ accountability by virtue of the fact that they are permitted to utilize (hide behind) anonimity; in my opinion, their credability understandably, takes a hit. Realistically, If someone is is unwilling to endure the consequences, which might be, incurred as a result of anything, which they have either spoken or written utilizing a public medium; if any person or group lacks the conviction to identify themselves, when utilizing a public medium to do so, why should anyone attach any credability to a word which the person writes or speaks while exercising theor Right to free speech. Telling people to shut up,thereby attempting to deny a person or group their Charter-guaranteed Right to freedom of speech; is as unjust as is abusing of the right to freedom of speech displayed by the unwillingness on the part of any individual or group of individuals to be accountable for what that person or group is advocating, when they choose to use the immunity from accountability provided to them when the optportunity to remain anonymous is afforded them. Freedom of speech, in the absence of a willingness to be accountable for what a person or group advocates, constitutes an abuuse of the right to said freedom.

    • Free Speech Therapy
      March 20, 2014 - 11:15

      A citizen anywhere in the world can say what they wish openly..... if they can endure the consequences. Even in the west "accountable" usually means having fiscal and legal resources to defend speech. Rebut the comment, don't rebuke the citizen unless the comment was intended to offend in the first place - even then the exchange is not a matter of speech but hostility ??? Civil rights are often only ideals unless one is prepared to defend them.... liberty is still a work in progress

  • Fitzc
    March 19, 2014 - 19:52

    "Steyn likes to suggest that Michael Mann is helping to create a kind of scientific correctness by using the court system to suppress debate. Mann is doing nothing of the sort. He is quite specifically contesting Steyn’s characterization of him as a fraudster, pure and simple. " But the question here is motive. Steyn maintains the true motive for the suit is to impose costs or the threat of costs on critics of Mann and his agenda. Mann claims it's to defend his reputation. Unless you have a window into Mann's soul it is not pure and simple.

  • cranberry tom
    March 19, 2014 - 12:54

    Nobody ever said that all views are valid and should be embraced, the point of free speech is to stop horrible people from abusing censorship. The price is that you get people expressing unsavory ideas some of the time, but it is much better than the alternative.

  • Arithmetic of Freedom
    March 19, 2014 - 12:23

    It is an interesting column, however there is not only the right to speak freely but the logistics of speaking freely. If one declares an opinion of any consequence, there will be some rebuttal or reaction - mostly by those other citizens exercising the same right. This takes time, and time is money. If one does not have the logistics of opinion sorted out, then the army of armchair critics will claim that perhaps the speech is reckless. Thus in the bad old days it was the content of the opinion that would cost a person their freedom or job etc.. Now it is a matter of the citizen not thinking clearly enough to invest time and money that they don't have in a topic they may not be expert in. Many criticize anonymous posters and the sometimes bitter comments. Long before the Charter there were the cheap seats at hockey and baseball games. What bleacher creatures wouldn't say about/to the players!!!... protected by small mob of a common mind? Get yourself in a position of independent wealth (albeit often a modest fixed income) and broadcast or tap away. But where would we be without them. How else could Mtl get the Bruins off their game at the old forum?

  • saelcove
    March 19, 2014 - 12:00

    I believe your story should be edited again so you can get your facts straight

  • Don Decker
    March 19, 2014 - 09:41

    Your reasoning for free speech is not only hypocritical but confusing to a lot of readers. How can you say that an individual has a right to free speech then tell them to shut up? It appears what you are really saying is, if they do not agree with the way you think then they should not say anything. What makes you think that you know everything and no one else does? What makes this world a great place, is the ability to communicate with one another. Not to suppress truth.

  • carogers
    March 19, 2014 - 08:18

    "We wouldn’t need laws if that were true. We would live in an ugly, chaotic hell reigned by hatred and greed, but" .... but we do live in an ugly chaotic hell, full of greed and hatred. Have you visited a mall lately? I work in one. The youth who hang out there have conversations peppered with who they intend to punch out, they stake the person and jump them outside. these are 12, 14year olds. You think this type of thing might happen. It is an every day occurrence I have been screamed at, cursed on, called names and threated by kids acting tough. Security is called, then police are called, regularly to the Avalon Mall. You live a sheltered life if you think chaos is not already here when it comes to our society.

  • Peter Jackson
    March 19, 2014 - 07:40

    Thank you for the correction, Morris. It has been fixed in the online story. From what I know of the Sierra Club case, however, I stand by my comments.

    • Morris
      March 19, 2014 - 11:19

      From what I know of the Williams case , I stand by my facetious comment!

  • Maurice E. Adams
    March 19, 2014 - 07:28

    If science itself is being suppressed and/or the scientists opportunity to discuss their findings is suppressed (as is apparently the case by the federal government, preventing its own scientists from speaking to the media), then "debate" over science is being suppressed, is it not. Same goes for other important information (such as that which Nalcor has but refuses to release) --- suppression of debate, elimination of 'informed' debate.

  • Morris
    March 19, 2014 - 05:39

    The statement "Levant has been testifying at a rights tribunal over accusations he slandered a young Muslim lawyer" is incorrect. Levant has been testifying at Ontario Superior Court of Justice, not provincial human Rights Commission Tribunal. A big difference!!! Your comment that" the limits of free speech are usually tested and challenged by those who have made a career of being insulting and offensive" may be "fair comment" regarding the US legal environment, however that is certaintly not the situation in Canada. eg. Williams and mining company Alderon filed defamation law suits against the Sierra Club Canada!