Opera houses, universities, public schools, civic libraries, and civic museums, all express and explain the societies and cultures from which they come. You might think their antiquity would protect such places from the ups and downs of the economy and the changeable opinions of politicians.
And you would be wrong.
If you look past the placid exteriors of the Royal Ontario Museum or the British Museum, Columbia University, l’Opéra de Paris, the University of Toronto, and the rest, there is a tale of continuous change and occasional disruption.
Debates about the regulation of different forms of speech – including hate speech, commercial advertising, election spending, and defamation, raise broader questions about the protection of free speech in contemporary public discourse.
When I lived in London as a young man, I spent a great deal of time at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, listening to all of the many and varied voices with their many and varied opinions. I agreed with little of what I heard, but I was awfully glad for the public space to go and hear all that disagreeable, often hilarious stuff. I also thought it quite amusing that so many of the speakers brought their own little ladders, stepstools or podiums on which to stand – an extra bit of height lending their opinions a bit more authority, or so they thought.
Prime Minister Trudeau received plaudits when, on a recent state visit to China, he boasted of Canada’s commitment to free expression, which he presented as a “true Canadian value”. The prime minister exalted “a diversity of ideas, and the free ability to express them” because freedom, he said, is what drives positive change. Perhaps he and others had forgotten that as leader of the Opposition he prohibited anyone opposed to abortion from running for federal office for the Liberal Party. If that was 2014 and this is 2016, there is more.
The decades following the Second World War saw gradually increasing democratization of governments and other organizational structures, including greater protections for freedom of expression in general and academic freedom in particular. The pace of change varied from country to country, with Canada often benefiting from progress in the US and UK in developing its own approaches.
In the Globe and Mail for Wednesday, August 31 of this year I encountered a piece by the African American sociologist of sport, Harry Edwards, on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the American national anthem. The piece was encouragingly framed as a contribution on “Human Rights,” and entitled “Silence is the enemy.” Dr.
By Len Findlay / Posted Friday September 23, 2016
It is that time of the year again. School has begun, and rules are being made, left, right and centre. Some of us are feeling the relief of sending children and grandchildren off to learn and have fun – and also to get a bit of distance from the “Why? Why? Why?”
Library and information workers use their education and experience to support intellectual freedom and address social concerns, such as by lobbying for copyright reform for peoples with print disabilities, exposing how commercial Internet filters are biased against sexual and gender minorities, collaborating with social workers on library services for homeless people, and fighting to safeguard cultural heritage in the context of war, conflict, and genocide. Sometimes their work comes down to a single word.
If asked to use the words “the police” and “freedom of expression” in a constructive sentence, I would guess 9 out of 10 Canadians would come up with something like: “It’s essential that the police not violate our freedom of expression.” And this spring-to-mind sentence is obviously true. Less obvious perhaps is that it also essential that the police themselves are able to exercise their right of free expression and that our own information rights factor into the issue of police expression.
What do you do when uninvited guests crash your party and say really offensive things? Asking them to leave is one strategy. What if they arrive masked, disguising their true purposes, and your party is an annual parade through the streets of downtown Toronto? In the case of two plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit, you sue for $104 million in damages for tortious defamation, civil conspiracy and intentional infliction of mental distress. Free speech folks should be concerned about having recourse to such litigation techniques as a response to offensive speech.