Protect free speech, even if offensive
by Salim Mansur
How does a liberal society deal with a case such as that of Salman Hossain, who posted vile, incendiary messages in public against Jews and others he detests and wishes harm?
It keeps this individual under surveillance and indicts him under the country's Criminal Code — in Canada it would be section 319 — if he is found to contravene it.
But a liberal society that takes freedom of speech for its anchor will not censor, or indict, this individual on the ground his speech is offensive to some or all people.
In several of my recent columns published in this paper, I have contended that Geert Wilders, the Dutch MP on trial for hate speech in Amsterdam's Court of Appeal, has the right to express freely — irrespective of whether I, or Muslims in general, find his views offensive — what he thinks about Muslims, Islam and the Qur'an.
The trial of Wilders in Holland indicates how persistent the temptation is within a liberal society to resort to illiberal means in dealing with situations that might cause some public unease. Complaints against Ezra Levant, Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine before various human rights commissions in Canada are other examples.
This temptation should be resisted at all times and freedom of speech should be defended unconditionally, especially when some abuse this freedom by deliberately riling others through malicious speech.
The argument that free speech must also be responsible speech is just another approach for censoring free speech or indicting an unpleasant individual. Any limit placed on free speech other than what the Criminal Code provides for tarnishes the fundamental characteristic of that liberal society.
It is only in a liberal society that an individual as a minority of one can mock, ridicule and vilify the majority, and his right to do so is protected on the transparently simple — yet revolutionary — calculus that if the majority is not constrained from abridging the right of any one person to speak freely it might do the same of many.
The struggle to protect free speech has not been easy. But over time, as in the United States where free speech as the first amendment right has been greatly secured, a liberal society should learn to distinguish between content of speech a majority might detest and crime that needs to be tried and punished.
Moreover, the temptation of those who seek to limit free speech when it is offensive reflects their doubts in the capacity of a liberal society to maintain its civic decency and, hence, undervalues its essential strength derived from the will of a free people.
Salman Hossain's anti-Semitic rantings are repugnant. But this 20-something Bangladeshi-Canadian student at one of Toronto's universities is merely an irritating pimple on the body politics of a liberal society.
In protecting this detestable young man's right to speak freely, even offensively, Canada as a liberal society would merely be abiding by its own commitments to individual rights and freedoms, and remaining confident in its police forces to prudently deal with any breach of peace.