Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Freedom of speech is not a simple issue

A couple of Calgary city councillors have posted on Twitter that they are “fighting” for freedom of speech/expression (Mar, McIver). This is a polarizing over-simplification of the issue before the committee at City Hall today (a bylaw proposal that would put some restrictions on the use of the public space around City Hall).

Statements like that speak as if this were a world of absolutes — as the extremists on all sides would have us believe — rather than the complex and complicated reality we actually live in.

Freedom of speech is an essential part of democracy, but, as with everything, there are necessary limits. It comes down to the old saying that “the rights of my fist end where the rights of your nose begin.” This is the reason why we have laws prohibiting “hate speech.”

Our “fighting” city councillors seem to be portraying the issue of a policy to govern the use of the public plaza at Calgary City Hall as a polarized one of either being completely for freedom of speech, or being on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. To me, that simplistic polarization is a shameful degradation of, and barrier to, a meaningful democratic dialogue.

Because there is speech that does harm (with recent concrete examples in the rallying of white supremacists on the steps of City Hall), we need to find ways as a society to prevent those harms.

It is impossible to have total freedom of speech because there are some forms of speech that end up impairing the freedom of speech of others. Hate speech is the most obvious of these in that it threatens the freedom of speech of those it seeks to victimize.

So, the main question that I think needs to be addressed is not the falsely polarizing “are you for or against freedom of speech?” but, rather: How can we maximize the broadest opportunities for freedom of speech for all in our society, while protecting each other from harm?

I have heard concerns raised questioning “who gets to decide what is unacceptable speech?” There isn’t a simple answer to that, either. I do think we have a pretty clear way to figure it out in each situation: Speech promoting harm of others. In Canadian law, we have the entrenched principle of speech advocating harm to a group of people on the basis of ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.

Yes, the line is often fuzzy. Remember, this is not a world of absolutes. Sometimes we’ll just have to put in the hard work of meaningful and deep questioning and dialogue to figure these things out as we go. We won’t always get it right. But, if we stay away from absolutism, and remain open to questioning and dialogue, we stand what seems to be the best chance of learning and doing things better.

Absolutism is for the lazy — democracy is hard work (and totally worth it).

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