Democracy and freedom

Let’s stop confusing free speech with a free press

Canada’s hate speech laws exist for good reason
Photo: wnjr

The shock and awe of Donald Trump’s election swept a lot of stories off the front pages of newspapers. Chief among them was the revelation that Montreal police officers obtained a warrant to collect the cellphone data of journalist Patrick Lagacé and were spying on him in order to identify a whistleblower.

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What has been dubbed the Lagacé Affair was not a one-off attempt by the government to monitor the work of the Fourth Estate. The latest reports indicate the Montreal police spied on at least six more journalists.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has promised a public inquiry into the spying scandal. A renewed spotlight on the affair may help ignite public fury; so far, public outrage has barely registered on the Richter scale.

Part of the blame for our apathy can surely be laid at the feet of the horror show that was the U.S. election. But our lukewarm reaction might also be the result of the profound cultural shift that has coincided with the frightening reality of state surveillance.

New technologies have become part of the fabric of our daily lives. They’ve influenced our perceptions, changed our behaviours, and helped blur our notions about what is public and what is private. They’ve also altered our ideas about the relevance and importance of the press.

We need to be extremely vigilant about protecting our right to a free press. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms defines our right to a free press, as the right to the free flow of information. Yet the state tries to interfere with this all the time.

When a politician refuses to answer a journalist’s questions or is “unavailable for comment” it has a direct and immediate impact on the way our democracy functions.

Our democracy works when the free flow of information lets the press, and helps the people, place limits on the power of those in authority.

When we raise our voices to defend our free press, however, we need to take special care not to confuse a free press with freedom of expression.

Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are different rights.

Donald Trump walked the line between free speech and hate speech during his campaign.

We need to be careful not to confuse these rights and their meanings because a lot of people are hollering about freedom of expression these days. And they are advocating for a complete lack of limits, or standards, which tends to favour those in positions of authority — those who already have power and the public’s attention.

When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech, she mentioned the right to freedom of expression with a tired nod. It’s no wonder. Donald Trump walked the line between free speech and hate speech during his campaign. He used his right to free speech to push so hard against the boundaries of acceptable behavior that they collapsed.

It would be sad to see the same thing happen over here. And yet, this past summer, supporters of Quebec comedian Mike Ward twisted themselves into a fury about a perceived violation of his right to free speech, after he was charged with discrimination.

Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor, is the latest Canadian to trumpet the dire straits of free speech. Like Ward, he’s received a lot of public support.

Peterson, who has refused to address his students respectfully with the pronouns they are asking him to use, has compared the Trudeau government’s Bill C-16, which proposes to ban discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression, to being “policed by a totalitarian and authoritarian state.”

This is a gross exaggeration and it demonstrates a confusion of the issues at hand.

Section 2-B of The Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms, which mimics the First Amendment, might be causing some of the free speech hysteria.

It lumps a bunch of freedoms, such as freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of the press under one clause. The Charter gives each freedom it’s own definition, but few people pay attention to them.

And so in public debates here and abroad, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are often linked together. Like a free press, free speech is tied to the welfare of our democracy. Free speech, however, needs to be monitored in order to keep that democracy healthy.

We have laws prohibiting hate speech and discrimination for good reasons. History has provided us with countless examples of how easily language can be used to manipulate a population, and what happens when free speech goes unchecked.

Our right to a free press is under threat, and this could have serious consequences for our way of life. But our right to free speech is not under threat, not at all. Canadians are allowed to say pretty much whatever they want. And this isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Even the worst perpetrators of hate speech, like Holocaust denier James Keegstra, the Alberta teacher who preached that Jews were child killers out to destroy Christianity, receive what amounts to a slap on the wrist. In 1984, the court ordered Keegstra to pay a $5,000 fine and gave him 200 hours of community service. His sentence was reduced on appeal.

Without a free press, we lose our ability to make informed decisions.

When the government monitors our free speech, the way it is supposed to, it helps protect people from hateful attitudes and behaviours. When our laws are applied as they were intended, it’s a sign our democracy is still in working order.

Over in the United States, Donald Trump openly mocked a disabled reporter. But here in Canada, thankfully, we’re still on the lookout for injustices like this.

Mike Ward made fun of a disabled child for three years, and it took the case forever to get through the system. But Ward was, finally, penalized for crossing the line between free speech and discrimination. Canadians should be proud he was held accountable for his actions.

But we should be furious that the police have been monitoring journalists’ cellphones and confiscating their laptops. This is a sign our democracy is fragile. Without a free press, we lose our ability to make informed decisions.

This is the moment when we need to raise our voices, write our politicians and demand updated legislation and use our right to freedom of expression. Because without a free press, we’ll be able to scream all we want — but we’ll have no idea what we’re screaming about.

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