Thursday, January 28, 2010

How Far Should Free Speech Go?

Nation, I'm not sure where this is going to go, so please bear with me - it might be another in a long line of "pack a lunch" posts from the Enlightened Savage, or it might be a quickie. Either way, I really REALLY want to hear your thoughts on this issue in the "comments" section.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Free Speech... more specifically, about how far the protection of free speech should extend.

There's a part of me - a very large part - that feels free speech and the protection thereof should be absolute. That even if some idiot wants to stand on a milk crate and yell about a Jewish conspiracy or the "Gay Agenda", they should be allowed to do so - because free speech is a guarantee in our society, and (as we all learned in elementary school) "words can never hurt me".

But the issue, of course, is more complex than the rhyme I learned in 2nd grade. Words CAN hurt you - and the courts enforce laws against libel or slander. Even before we open the can of worms that is the Human Rights Commission, it's evident in our common law that words CAN and DO hurt people, their reputations, and their ability to earn a living. You can't just come out and say whatever you want. I can't say "Alberta Altruist drowns kittens in his bath-tub". He'll sue me. (He doesn't. I think. A.A. - DO you?)

So, there are already limits to free speech, that cover the malicious spreading of lies in order to hurt someone's reputation, or their ability to earn a living. What about hurt FEELINGS, though?

At its most basic, my argument to those who feel they've been personally offended by the statements of another is: Suck it up.

Look, some people will like you. Some people won't. Some people will decide whether or not they like you without even getting to KNOW you. When they share their opinions, this can be hurtful - particularly if they fall into the third category. We see this most often when you're being lumped in with a group ("artists are all whiners", "teachers are all lazy", "politicians are all crooked"). The fact that these assertions are almost always completely absurd doesn't make them a whole lot less hurtful. But there's not a whole lot you can do to hold the speaker accountable, except to offer up a rebuttal of your own.

Where this gets a LOT more complicated is in the area of what we call "inciting hatred"...

It's one thing, for example, for PETA to say that the Federal Fisheries minister is "aiding and abetting seal murderers". So long as they don't represent themselves as offering a legal opinion, I'm pretty sure they can get away with saying stuff like that. But when they say "she's aiding and abetting seal murder, and she must be held to account - one of you has got to stop her!", then when someone DOES something - as happened this week - what blame falls to the organization? Is there a line between "I'd like to see David Swann's face covered in whipped cream" and "one of you, my devoted followers, should go hit David Swann in the face with a Banana Creme Pie"?

The biggest area we see this fine line being debated is as regards to faith and congregations. It's lawful to read Leviticus 18:22 to a group of people... but when you say "The Gay is evil, and if you know of one on your street you should run him out of town", you are (as near as I, a non-lawyer, can tell) breaking the law.

So it seems like we're trying to have it both ways... we want the freedom of speech that forces, in practice if not in law, cities to allow "pride" parades with costumes (or a conspicuous lack thereof) and behaviours that even I, a professional musician, find over the top (think of an Adam Lambert video on Ecstasy) under the pretense of "free speech", but when someone wants to criticise those behaviours, then THEIR right to free speech is questioned as "hate speech" - which is odd to me, because when *I*, well-known among my peers as a strong advocate for full and equal rights for the GBLT community, criticise the kind of thing you'd see at a Pride parade, I'm not referred to as a "hate-monger" (perhaps because they know I'm not coming from a place of hate), but rather just as a "straight prude" (which is really quite hilarious if you knew me in high school).

I guess what set this off for me was a recent series of reader comments that I've seen popping up on the blogs, particularly on daveberta, talking about the "hidden Mormon agenda" of the Wildrose Alliance. And talk like that really, REALLY ticks me off.

I am NOT a Mormon. As we've established previously on these pages, I don't consider myself a person of any particular faith - but I have the fullest respect for people who ARE... and this kind of "hidden agenda" nonsense is absolutely preposterous.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have beliefs that others might find peculiar. For that matter, so do Catholics, or Hindus, or members of any identifiable faith group you could name. If you're NOT a member of that group, it's very easy to look at a group's doctrine or traditions or teachings and find something that seems absolutely ridiculous to you.

To suggest, though, that the Wildrose Alliance is somehow being set up as the political arm of the Mormon Church is simply asinine. And to USE that assertion as an excuse to insult and belittle a church made up overwhelmingly of good, decent, hard-working people is simply WRONG.

Are there Mormons placed highly within the WAP? Yes, sure there are. There are also Catholics. Evangelicals of hundreds of different congregations. Muslims. And atheists. Is the suggestion here that the WAP is a front for a Mormon/Catholic/Evangelical/Muslim/Atheist conspiracy? What would THOSE policies look like?

Folks, you find people of faith in EVERY political party. And you find members of every political party in any congregation. The beauty of this "free will" thing is that we can CHOOSE what church to belong to, or what political party. Because of their grassroots-driven policy process, parties like the WAP and the PC Party of Alberta are particularly easy to "invade" for a politically-motivated group of any sort, whether they be religious in nature, or some other sort of special interest group. When you choose policies based on "one member, one vote" that vote, and the member who casts it, can come from any of a million possible motivations - some of them religious.

Now, I'm not saying that people don't have the right to say what they want about the Mormon Church. I think they do. I will simultaneously defend their right to say it, while also publicly shooting them down for being so utterly wrong in their assertions.

But here's the thing about "free speech" - it's not universal, which is what people often forget.

You have the right to say just about anything you want. This is true. What you DON'T have the right to do, though, is to say it WHEREVER you want.

You want to say that Homosexuals are sinners? Fine. I disagree with you, but you have the right to an opinion, and to express it. But you don't have the right to walk into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, sit in Ken Kowalski's chair, and say it in the middle of Question Period.

You want to say that Mormons believe funny things? Fine. Again, I wouldn't agree with your statement, but you have the right to make it. You DON'T have the right, though, to say it in the Calgary Sun, or on a webpage with "The Enlightened Savage" on top. That's up to the people who determine content in those 2 publications.

If you want a place where your right to publish whatever opinions you might have is completely unfettered, then you're living in the right decade. Click the "blogger" logo at the top of this page, and start your own Blog, where the editor (you) will publish whatever you write, no matter how silly it might be.

That's what I did.

But at the end of the day, take care to remember: Your right to swing your fist ends the moment it meets up with your neighbour's right to not have his nose broken.

Try it - and ask the cops when they show up.


What say YOU, Nation? Is the right to free speech absolute, or should there be limits to what a person can say publicly?

Comments about the issue of free speech will be welcomed, and vigorously debated. Comments meant to make fun of any religious group will be deleted, as an exercise of MY right to not have idiotic, intolerant and hurtful comments about good people posted on a blog bearing my brand.


Troy Wason said...

I exercise my right to brevity.


Alex said...

I think you're way off base, Savage. Look at comment #32 on Dave's comment board. Is what they're doing OK with you? Is the church instructing it's members to go along with this? Is it OK for them to be this political, but when we (gay folk) try to retort, people like you will say, "how dare you attack their personal faith"?

I challenge you to think about this critically, savage.

Enlightened Savage said...

Alex: Thank-you for your thoughtful comments.

This was the crux of my post. I think that people have the right to believe whatever they want. What I QUESTION, though, is the sort of demonstration I see in that video. The message from Prop. 8 supporters is not as simple as "I don't like these people", it's clearly "I don't like them, and neither should you" - and at THAT point, I wonder if we've crossed a line in the name of the sacred cow known as "free speech".

Proposition 8 is, to my mind, a public policy abomination. I want to be very clear on that.

I just don't see how making statements like "all Mormons are bad and out to get us" is any more constructive than the statement "all homosexuals are bad and out to get us" - it's prejudice, and both statements are incorrect (in my opinion).

People DO have the right to be wrong.

They have the right to express their views, no matter how wrong or backwards they might seem to you or me or the devout Mormon who lives down the block.

What I wonder, though, is whether we get so wrapped up in what our "rights" are, that we sometimes lose perspective...

We have the right to be wrong.

But do we have the right to incite hatred, mistrust, and abuse of ANY identifiable group of law-abiding citizens, be they consenting adults in loving relationships, people of good conscience attending a mass service, or people who happen to have been born with more melanin than I?

"All gays are bad".

"All Mormons are bad".

"All Arabs are bad".

All 3 of those statements are patently absurd. All 3 are constitutionally protected, if you say them in your home.

If you say them in front of a thousand people, and those people ACT on what you say... should that protection still apply?

That's what I want to know... hence the title of the post.

Unknown said...

Given that all of those statements are patently absurd to anyone who doesn't already believe them... is there harm in uttering them? To those who disagree, the speaker will just look a fool, and to those who don't, they're already lost.

Of course, with your seal hunt example: saying "something needs to be done" or "someone needs to stop him/her," this IS a request for action.

I don't like the idea of legally-restricted speech, it becomes far too easy to silence the oppressed when such restrictions exist.

However, hateful speech should be considered a mitigating circumstance if any retaliation takes place.

I believe that when you exercise your right to free speech, you give up your right to anonymity. Free speech is the right to say what you want, without fear of legal retribution. I think that to claim your rights, you should claim your identity.

When "Free Speech" was guaranteed, there wasn't much possibility of anonymous publication. You spoke your mind, and everyone knew who had spoken, and could be judged accordingly.

Derrick Jacobson said...

Good post E.S.,
Not sure how I missed it, but I think you are using the common sense that many people aren't able to embrace. We do not need restrictions of free speech when we are simply stating our own opinions. There are however cases that cross this line. If I say I think your gay, are you going to the HRC looking to press charges? I doubt it, but if you are a public figure and I tell the Herald you are involved in homosexual activity and your not, this opens up a new debate. As you know I do not support interference in free speech by the HRC, and I believe it is irrelevent because there are laws in place to deal with slander and hate crimes.
As far as the stereotype we place on political parties such as the Mormon WAP, which they graciously allowed me to join even though I am not of that faith, will continue past our lifetime.
In short free speech is a priveledge we enjoy as a developed country. The line though, yes I agree there are limits, is where the debate comes in. Hurt feelings is not a reason to take away from ones freedoms.
I wouldn't sue you for saying I drown kittens in my bathtub, however I may use the law to press charges regarding privacy laws if I were. If not I may use the slander laws, either way it would not restrict free speech of opinion. I think the line is where you make a non-opinion statement without the proof to back it up.

DGR said...

Dear E.S.

Your namesake, Michael Savage, has been placed on a BANNED list by the UK, due to his outspoken conservative views ... otherwise known as "hate speech".

Michael Savage Website

And yet, perhaps more chilling still is the trial, currently taking place in the Netherlands, of Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, undergoing prosecution for his short video depicting Islamic terrorism:

On Trial for Telling the Truth

These, to me, are the BIGGEST and GRANDEST tests of what free speech means today in the West, and I am surprised [no criticism intended whatsoever] that your post did not refer to them.