All worked up…

Glenn Greenwald, who I do like, has his panties in a twist over Canada’s hate speech laws:

I’ve written many times before about the evils of “hate speech” laws that are prevalent in Canada and Europe — people being fined, prosecuted and hauled before official tribunals for expressing political opinions which the State has prohibited and criminalized.  I won’t rehash those arguments here, but I do want to note a particularly creepy illustration of how these laws manifest.  The far-right hatemonger Ann Coulter was invited by a campus conservative group to speak at the University of Ottawa, and the Vice Provost of that college sent Coulter a letter warning her that she may be subject to criminal prosecution if the views she expresses fall into the realm of prohibited viewpoints:

Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. . . .

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. . . .

Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.

Sincerely,

Francois Houle,

Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa

Personally, I think threatening someone with criminal prosecution for the political views they might express is quite “hateful.”  So, too, is anointing oneself the arbiter of what is and is not sufficiently “civilized discussion” to the point of using the force of criminal law to enforce it.  If I were administering Canada’s intrinsically subjective “hate speech” laws (and I never would), I’d consider prosecuting Provost Houle for this letter.  The hubris required to believe that you can declare certain views so objectively hateful that they should be criminalized is astronomical; in so many eras, views that were most scorned by majorities ended up emerging as truth.

For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes, will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them, and will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered. Who would ever want to empower officious technocrats to issue warnings along the lines of:  be forewarned:  if you express certain political views, you may be committing a crime; guide and restrict yourself accordingly?  I obviously devote a substantial amount of my time and energy to critiquing the actions of the U.S. Government, but the robust free speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment and largely protected by American courts continues to be one of the best features of American political culture.

I have NO problem with Canada’s hate speech laws. I think the letter the Provost sent to Ann Coulter is perfectly reasonable. I don’t see why Greenwald’s so worked up.  This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Our government has largely done a better job protecting civil rights and human rights than the US government (though we ain’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination). Our public discourse might be boring, but it’s pretty civil. I would say that it’s certainly a result of the laws that we have in place to protect civility.  Sure, you have MORE freedom of speech in the U.S. but you also have idiots like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter dominating the public discourse, promoting ignorance and hatred, (and whipping up a whole lot of racist nutbags in the process). A lot of Canadians, maybe a majority, are sickened and shocked by the crap that comes out of their mouths. THIS IS A GOOD THING.

I don’t see anything wrong with warning Ann Coulter that you aren’t allowed to promote hatred against an identifiable group in this country. That’s one of the few things in this country I’m proud of. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh could not exist here, and they certainly wouldn’t be paid hundreds of millions of dollars to hate people on the air. Plus, Canada isn’t the country that’s looking more and more Orwellian by the day. I believe that’s our neighbour to the south. “We’re tough on terrorism thus we’re scared to try them in our courts?” “We’re defending our constitution by saying we should destroy its institutions in the name of fighting terror?” “We want to scare the people so badly that they’re willing to let us create an all powerful police state that can detain and torture people without just cause?” And yet Canada is the country with less freedom? I don’t fucking think so.

So Ann Coulter? Liz and Dick Cheney? John Yoo? Bill O’Reilly etc etc? Fox News? You guys can have ’em.

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7 thoughts on “All worked up…

  1. I have never in my life disagreed more strongly with something you’ve written. I’ve posted on this topic in the past, so in the interest of not spiking my blood pressure while on vacation I’ll just link to my earlier writing (and an Yglesias piece for good measure). Suffice to say that I think your country’s hate speech laws are paternalistic, anti-democratic and ridiculously dangerous, even more so when one considers the precedent they set for less well-consolidated democracies. Also, my love for Glenn Greenwald grows by the day:

    http://fpwatch.blogspot.com/2009/01/free-speech.html

    http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2010/03/hate-speech-in-south-africa.php

  2. I know you don’t agree with me on this. I have never met an American, even one who lives in Canada, who agrees on this.

  3. Nope. You said yourself on your blog that the article itself wasn’t very good and if McLean’s had any class they probably wouldn’t have published it, though it resembles a lot of what’s coming out of conservative publications in your country.
    Why would I defend something like that?

    Anyway, I have some other points to make, which I might make in a future post later today, but I’d rather not debate it if it means that you’ll be upset with me. I value our friendship more than I value a political point.

  4. Plus, I don’t necessarily support hate speech laws across the board. I think they have the potential to be very dangerous (as they would be in the U.S. were they ever to be law there – but we all know how unlikely that would be). I support the hate speech legislation AS IT EXISTS IN CANADA because I feel it is rationally applied for the most part and only seeks to protect those who are vulnerable.

    I agree with you and Yglesias that in a fledgling democracy hate speech law could be disastrous. Hell, in the hands of Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin it would also be dangerous. I just don’t feel that way about Canada. I’m sorry. It may not be very consistent, but it’s the way I feel. I’m not looking to go to law school, or into politics, so I’m sure someone could rip my argument to shreds. Canada has it flaws, for sure, and some of its flaws would be remedied by becoming MORE like the U.S. in certain aspects, which I’d like to go into at some point in another post.
    However, bottom line, we’re not going to agree on this, so let’s shake hands over the internets and be friends….

  5. Okay, well, first off, I’m not UPSET with you Alix, jeez, I just don’t agree. Most Canadians I know seem to take your side on this one. If I let it affect my friendships I’d be quite lonely.

    For the sake of being contrary, I guess I’d make two distinctions. First, there’s a difference between supporting a law as it exists versus supporting a law as it’s applied. Now, for what it’s worth, I don’t support either in Canada’s case, but for the sake of argument, I’ll grant that it would be more pleasant to live in a country in which I didn’t need to listen to Ann Coulter. The point is that there’s nothing in the law (or in other, similar laws based on national security grounds or whatever) that keeps it from only being applied to conservative blowhards who can barely contain their own bigoted and authoritarian impulses.

    The problem is, when you have laws like this lying around, they become latent resources to be abused once circumstances change (to take a much more extreme example, I’d note that it was Bill Clinton who started the practice of “Extraordinary Rendition,” but it was only once Bush/Cheney took power that they looked at it and said “oooh, here’s a semi-legal way we can create an international gulag of secret prisons”).

    Unless you think there’s something in the Canadian psyche that would keep people like Dick Cheney from ever coming to power (and I’ll admit that would be less likely to happen up north than it would be here, but living through 9/11 and seeing how frighteningly quickly something like that can change the way 300 million + people value the bedrock foundations of their own freedom, I’m not willing to grant that it’s beyond the plausible), it just seems really dangerous to have legal instruments that are so tailor-made for abuse.

    In any case, this is your blog and I’m being a dick for trying to have the last word, so I promise I’ll restrain myself from here on and write no more about it.

  6. No, no, I didn’t think you that upset, I just read the comment about the blood pressure and felt like I was ruining your vacation!

    In the instance of having legal instruments tailor-made for abuse, I agree with you to an extent but think that Canadian hate speech laws are weak instruments for that kind of abuse.

    Also, it drives me crazy when people (like Coulter is now saying) say that these kind of laws target Conservatives. No, they target INTOLERANCE. It’s not my fault that Conservatives take the intolerant position on almost everything that I value and hold dear. That’s their fault.

    However, as Rush can tell you, there’s a lot of money to be made by being intolerant, far more than you can make by being liked by everybody. That’s his prerogative. But with him and Coulter and Beck exploiting (largely) uneducated and (largely) working class people with their insincerely held views is just sickening. So they do what they do, thus deepening the ideological divide in your country and making it much more extreme than it ever was.

    To me, and don’t take this the wrong way, the American obsession with freedom is a little ludicrous in the 21st century. (And I don’t include you in this assessment by any means). With one hand you have a placating sort of assurance by the government that we won’t take your freedom of speech away on the one hand, while the other hand is taking rights away from right under your noses.
    And where is the Conservative righteous indignation there?

    To me, the freedom of speech in the U.S. largely lets the country (public discourse, politicians, media etc,) set up a common enemy, in this case Muslims. There were always hopes that this would bring the country closer together the way it used to, and it has obviously, spectacularly failed, thanks to you and other tolerant and rational Americans.

    Because our public discourse, politicians and media cannot take that xenophobic turn, we don’t have that strong ideological divide here (much to Harper’s chagrin). And maybe it’s homogenizing, and yes, it does lead to a whole other set of problems (lack of innovation, lack of competition, weaker universities etc).

    Basically, I just wish everyone in your country would get as worked up over Liz Cheney’s assertions as they do over their right to free speech. They don’t see people like the Cheneys as an assault on their dearly held freedom and it’s about friggin’ time that they do.

    And I don’t care if you get the last word here! You’re always welcome around these parts!

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