Free Speech Has To Be For Everyone

April 2008

University of Toronto president David Naylor confesses that this isn't his favourite time of year."It is the consistently worst week of a president's life," he sighs. Yes, it's Israel Apartheid Week - the annual Israel-bashing fest with the usual small band of activists and crackpots, and speakers from that champion of universal justice, the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Needless to say, many, many rich and influential alumni do not like Israel Apartheid Week, which, although neither sponsored nor condoned by the school, is organized by students who are allowed to use the campus."The e-mails that one receives cause a pretty serious degree of unhappiness," Dr. Naylor masterfully understates.

Despite the pain, the president is standing firm. The university even ran a full-page newspaper ad in response to objections from Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies."We do, in fact, recognize that the term 'Israeli Apartheid' is upsetting to many people," reads the statement, signed by Dr. Naylor."We also recognize that, in every society, universities have a unique role to provide a safe venue for highly charged discourse." Dr. Naylor is absolutely right. Unless people are prepared to put up with obnoxious (even hateful) speech, they have no leg to stand on when they denounce the Muslim law students who have taken Maclean's magazine to various human rights commissions for printing a piece they didn't like. They have no grounds to denounce the human-rights commissions either, or the Montreal university that cancelled appearances by two Israeli politicians because of "safety" concerns. Free speech is a two-way street.

The truth is, we are a nation of cowerers and wimps. We'd rather censor speech than allow feelings to be hurt. We live in fear that a few obscure bigots will incite an orgy of violence and send an entire civil society crashing to its knees.

Why are we wasting time and money dragging disgraced native leader David Ahenakew through the courts? Back in 2002, he likened Jews to a "disease" and was immediately ostracized from polite society.

That should have been enough. Instead, he was tried and convicted in the courts on a charge of willfully promoting hatred. The verdict was overturned because it wasn't clear whether he was being willful, simply deranged or drunk. So now, we're going to try him all over again.

Are anti-Semites a threat to public safety? Here in North America, the answer is surely no, so long as they don't go round firebombing synagogues. Are anti-homosexuals? No again, so long as they're not physically engaged in gay-bashing. So long as equality before the law is the law of the land, we don't need hate-speech laws to protect people. And no matter how words hurt, there's a difference between words and blows.

This distinction appears to have been lost on Alberta's Human Rights Commission, which recently ruled against a conservative Christian who'd written a letter to the Red Deer Advocate in which he called gays "immoral." The commission ruled that his letter was "likely to expose homosexuals to hatred and/or contempt," and even linked it to the beating of a gay teenager, acknowledging the link was "circumstantial." But now, the Christians are claiming equal rights.

A tiny group called Concerned Christians Canada is vowing to take the Alberta Conservatives to the commission for refusing to endorse two of its nominated candidates, which they claim encourages Christian-bashing and is "reflective of wartime Germany." There's another problem with prosecuting hate talk. It gives the haters notoriety."The sad reality is that were we to cancel this event or refuse a booking, it would turn a relatively small event into a cause celebre," Dr. Naylor says. Besides, universities (unlike rights commissions) are supposed to value free speech. What a concept! Maybe this country should give it a try.