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

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on March 19, 2014

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: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

 

(This story has been edited to correct information.)