Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I can has freedom of speech


I’ve become more [of] a free speech absolutist. I think Western democracies are insane when they attempt to criminalize opinion. Nothing good comes from that....

I’m happy to be criticized by free-born citizens. But the idea of some hack bureaucrat saying you can’t say this and you can’t say that, should be repellent to any free society.

--Mark Steyn


Do you know how rare in this world freedom of speech is?

Most Americans go through life blissfully ignorant, just taking it for granted that they can open their mouths at will, spill their guts, and not end up fined, in jail, unemployed, tortured, or otherwise silenced for speaking their minds. Most Americans remain totally unconscious all of their lives of precisely how blessed and even unique we Americans are in being able to share our thoughts aloud in words or print or pixels or art.

I cherish a family story of a young German immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800's; he served in the U.S. Army, then worked hard for years making a decent living. Finally he made a trip back across the ocean to his home village in Germany to revisit the scenes and the people of his youth. Unfortunately he got to shooting his mouth off about the politics of the Kaiser in a local saloon and ended up incarcerated in a Reich jail for several months before he was able to return home to Pennsylvania. He had gotten used to the American free-and-easy way of speaking his mind.

Freedom of speech is stimulating, addictive, and natural. Our Founding Fathers were right when they labeled it a natural right from God. We Americans today (as Americans have always done) can deplore some of the messages our First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees immunity to--we can deplore the crassness, the bigoted ignorance, and even the obscenity of much of what passes for free speech sometimes (especially, and I am speaking as a parent, whenever children are involved).

But most Americans know in their hearts that the downsides are not only worth, but essential to, that freedom of speech we enjoy, and that they must necessarily come with the territory. We realize we are also free to find quick solutions and workarounds for the downsides, because creative people living in freedom learn to analyze, synthesize, debate, and be robust, precise, and flexible in exchanging views and ideas to promote personal and social progress.

I did not realize until I traveled to Sydney, Australia eight years ago that even the British Commonwealth puts limits on free speech that we Americans don't have to submit to. The signs around Sydney's ferry docks at Circular Quay prohibiting uncivil speech or behavior (I forget the exact but surprisingly ominous-sounding wording) at first glance reassured me (a conservative fan of social order and the rule of law) that my Dreamboat and I would enjoy a pleasant after-dark tourist stroll unmolested by (for example) assaultive panhanders, menacing drunks, or mentally ill thugs. But my next thought was to look over my shoulder and worry that Big Brother might overhear us saying something deemed--who knows how or why--"uncivil." And my third thought was: Too bad for the Aussies, content to live "protected" from the rough-and-tumble rights we Americans can handle.

I have since learned by internet surfing that Australians have no "bill of rights" as Americans do, but rather have "implied" rights "under common law" that are being reinterpreted all the time. Circular Quay was then (and is still?) under the jurisdiction of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority regulations passed to ensure that law and order reigned during the 2000 Olympics.)

And part of the ongoing reinterpretation of Australia's free speech codes involves the recent passing of legislation to outlaw "hate speech," which is really the government taking on the right to define "hate" and decide, with criminal penalties at stake, what people think, intend, and mean when they dare to air their own opinions.

As one proponent (Waleed Aly) of such "hate speech" legislation and prosecution writes, "There is free speech and then there is hate-inducing vilification." But this line of thinking implies that if a hearer of a speech, for whatever psychological reasons, experiences "hate" as defined by himself or the government (and/or subsequently commits a crime), then it is the original speaker who is at fault. This kind of reasoning to me seems (like another agument by Waleed Aly) to be obviously specious and hence should by rights present no serious indictment of free speech.

But there is a growing tide of legislation around what one would think of as the "free world" to prosecute vigorously against such ill-defined "hate speech." They grant that it is an amorphous term, to be defined by government bureaucrats with their own biases and agendas, mind you.

In France, Brigitte Bardot is on trial for "inciting racial hatred" for saying that the Muslim community is "destroying our country and imposing its acts."

And recent developments closer to home, in good old, friendly Canada have been very disturbing, thanks to its non-elected Human Rights Commissions prosecuting "hate speech" against not all, but only certain privileged identity groups:

There is the story of the pastor, Stephen Boissoin, who published an anti-homosexual letter in his hometown newspaper (additional background here). According to Mark Steyn, he was given "a lifetime ban on ever speaking or writing publicly about homosexuality anywhere in public again." This Stalinist gag order seems incredible to contemplate in a country that supposedly venerates human rights. Mark Steyn recently wrote more about this case:

By way of comparison, consider a less stellar victim of the anti-"hate" regime and one who lacks the support of one of the Canadian mosaic's preferred identity groups. Stephen Boissoin is the more or less penniless pastor clobbered by the Alberta "Human Rights" Commission for one letter to the newspaper on the subject of homosexuality. Last Sunday, his story was on CBC TV: They interviewed the plaintiff, Darren Lund, but not Mr Boissoin. A couple of weeks before that, The Globe And Mail ran a column by Mr Lund, but rejected one by Mr Boissoin. Before that, The Red Deer Advocate ran a front-page profile of Mr Lund about Mr Boissoin's "hateful" speech, but declined to run a letter by Mr Boissoin.

And so it will go, forever and ever. The thought police have declared him a non-person. For years to come, "human rights" crusaders like Mr Lund will make reference to the importance of "the Boissoin case" and of taking a stand against "Boissoin's hateful speech", but Boissoin the person will have no right of reply, even in the local newspaper, which will have no desire to attract the attentions of Lund and his enforcers.

There is also the case of the Canadian Catholic anti-homosexual and anti-abortion activist who has been "banned for life" from publicly criticizing homosexuality.

Another activist, Ron Gray, has been prosecuted for publicizing articles critical of homosexuals.

Here is a summary article of more such cases in Canada.

Two most prominent cases in Canada recently have been launched, first, against Ezra Levant, publisher of the Western Standard, which published the controversial Mohammed cartoons and was then charged with "hate speech" by an irate Canadian imam. (Ezra's own blog is here and his amazing appearance before the HRC interrogator is here; also here is his appearance on Glenn Beck's TV show.).

The other complaint has been lodged against talented American (formerly Canadian) writer Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine, which published an essay from his book America Alone. This case was just belatedly declined to be heard by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which in declining, nevertheless implied Steyn and Maclean's were racist and xenophobic. (Steyn has his own blog too.) I have read America Alone, and these charges are patently untrue. Mark Steyn is still to be put "on trial" for the same "crime" by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, starting June 2nd.

The latest news concerning the Canadian thought-police culture is that Richard Warman, a former HRC prosecutor, is suing several prominent Canadian conservative bloggers for guess what? yes, "hate speech."

It is all most disturbing.

There are fourteen different Human Rights Commissions (HRCs) in Canada at the federal, provincial and territorial level. Ezra Levant says: "I don't think there is a sane one amongst the bunch." As Mark Steyn writes:

• Originally designed to arbitrate employment and tenancy issues, HRC’s are now monitoring and enforcing politically correct speech and thought.

• Government always provide the lawyers for the complainants; there are no limits to how much can be spent. Defendants have to pay their own legal fees, and do not qualify for “legal aid” for HRC cases.

• HRC’s are subject to “Forum Shopping.” Complainants can freely file their grievances in multiple jurisdictions - with the legal costs for each complaint paid for by the taxpayers - in the hope that at least one of them will provide relief. Defendants are stuck with paying multiple legal bills in multiple jurisdictions. (In a real court, defendants can only be charged once; anything more than that is called “double jeopardy”.)...
That big, friendly, smart, civilized Canada is propagating this kind of Big Brotherism among its own citizens is scary. Conservatives and the blogosphere are fighting back, but do they have any legal legs to stand on?

Meanwhile some folks in the U.S. would like to see similar tribunals set up here to enforce PC speech codes and chill unPC criticism (such amorphously restrictive speech codes are already in place on many college campuses). It can and does happen here.

What we think of as freedom of speech in the U.S. does not really exist elsewhere. And like all of our American liberties, it must always and constantly be defended here, too.

One of the main reasons why I blog is: because I can. Is this a natural right my children will be able to retain in another 20 years? Or, like the unwary old Pennsylvania German-American, will they end up being thrown in jail for dissing the Kaiser?

Background essay: "Thought and Crime"

UPDATE: "Great Britain's Free Speech Breakdown"

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