Sunday, March 28, 2010

Freedom of Expression: Canada vs. Texas

The president of Tarleton College in Texas has a stronger commitment to free speech than the vice-president of the University of Ottawa.

This is one of the worst things about living in Canada.

20 comments:

fudo said...

I'm not completely sure I'm with you on this one. It seems to me that the problem here is not Mr Houle's commitment to free speech, but to Canadian laws. We have similar laws in Italy against defamation and promotion of hatred against a group (an ethnic group, in particular). I think that considering defamation a criminal offence is probably a bit too much, but I totally agree with the existence of the other law. As with all freedoms, free speech should be limited in order not to harm others' freedoms.
That being told, I'm enjoying living in Canada much more than I did in Texas :)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The Canadian laws again hate propaganda are of little use, and have been used against the groups they were intended to protect. They are an embarrassment and should be repealed.

Do you think it is good for society when a university vice-president and provost takes it upon himself to remind a speaker at his university to take care not to say anything illegal? I find it grotesque.

Larry Moran said...

For the record, I think it's ridiculous for Canada to have laws against free speech. I also think it's ridiculous for the Provost, François Houle, to have sent a letter like the one he sent. He is a Professor in the School of Political Studies who specializes in, among other things, multiculturalism and modern political thought. What an embarrassment for the university!

However, it's a bit much for you to imply that a citizen of Texas can speak more freely without fear of reprisal than a citizen of Ontario.

What have you been smoking?

P.S. Do you remember the resolution introduced in the Oklahoma State Legislature when Richard Dawkins visited the University of Oklahoma? I'm not sure if you blogged about that attempt to suppress free speech.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

However, it's a bit much for you to imply that a citizen of Texas can speak more freely without fear of reprisal than a citizen of Ontario.

Where did I imply that?

I'm not sure if you blogged about that attempt to suppress free speech.

Larry, if I were to spend my time blogging about every free speech violation, I'd never get any work done.

fudo said...

I will try to learn about how those laws have been used against the groups they were intended to protect. I can't say I'm an expert on Canadian matters.
All I'm saying is that for example, I'm happy that an Italian politician promoting hatred and violence against foreigners and LGBT people can be prosecuted for that (it actually happened).

Anyway, I agree that the Provost has not been very wise or welcoming by writing such a long, official letter to the speaker. But I don't think that makes him an enemy of free speech, and I don't feel bad about living in a country having some limitations for this freedom (although once again, I should learn the details of these Canadian laws and their use, before commenting further).

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Texas is much much worse than any other place I'm familiar with. Unfortunately, I spent almost 10 years in Texas and I know that freedom of speech is something not much respected in that state. Gun owners and religious fundamentalists (the sets are almost identical) are the ones who have the right to say what they want. The rest have to keep their opinions to themselves.

Take, for instance, the post 9/11 attacks on journalists in Texas (and elsewhere). I personally know a Texas journalist who, because he wrote an article the day after 9/11, received many life-threatening phone calls and pressure to quit his job. I know of other journalists who were forced to quit their jobs in Texas newspapers because what they wrote was not totally compatible with the official line.

Although the letter of the U of Ottawa president is stupid, and although, in this particular instance, he appears to have less stronger commitment to free speech than a Texas college president, it is by no means the case that in Texas one can enjoy more freedom of speech than in Canada. Not at all.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I agree, Takis. To reiterate: I definitely did not say that the climate for free speech was better in Texas than in Ontario. After all, the professor at Tarleton was eventually forced to cancel the play, despite the support of his administration.

edthemanicstreetpreacher said...

I can see where you’re coming from with this one, Jeffrey, and you have my backing. Freedom of speech is an important principle, not matter how appalling what is being said.

On the other hand, I kinda wish there were laws preventing people like Ann Coulter and Pat Robertson from opening their mouths...

MSP

Mike from Ottawa said...

"This is one of the worst things about living in Canada."

If so, then this is indeed an amazingly wonderful place to live. I find the dark in winter much more oppressive.

How often do you find yourself constrained by our hate speech laws? What are the groups the laws are intended to protect who've had the hate speech laws used against them, as you say?

Our libel laws are really more of a problem, though the courts have recently been making some good progress toward a better balance of freedom of speech and reputation, in the absence of any sign any governments would act. With the Simon Singh appeal decision due Thursday, it will be interesting to compare.

As rancourous as our politics is these days, I look south of the border and what I see there makes our politics look like afternoon tea complete with cucumber sandwiches and raised pinkies. One thing I don't see in American politics is actual discussion of ideas that the American absolutism on free speech is supposed to protect and generate. Blatant lies about opponents and insanely inflammatory rhetoric seem to be the currency there. That's not a scene I'd trade ours for. YMMV

Jeffrey Shallit said...

How often do you find yourself constrained by our hate speech laws?

That's not the point. I'm not constrained by laws against marijuana, either, but they are still unjust.

And actually, I do feel constrained by hate speech laws. I don't find it a stretch at all that they might be used against people who speak out against fundamentalist religion.

The CCLA have lots of examples of the hate speech laws being used against minority groups. But they're back in my paper files in Ontario, which I don't have access to now. For years, Alan Borovoy has warned about the bad consequences of such laws.

As rancourous as our politics is these days, I look south of the border and what I see there makes our politics look like afternoon tea complete with cucumber sandwiches and raised pinkies.

Part of the reason is the fact that the US is 10 times larger than Canada. With a much larger population, there are going to be more outliers.

Canada has its own home-grown far-right wackos, too. Read about this guy.

fudo said...

I see your point. But I think that how you speak against a group should matter. For instance, I believe that nothing I read on your blog should qualify as "promotion of hatred".
If in the past these laws have been used as you say, then it means they should be written better, or better interpreted (I'm not very familiar with the common law system). I still believe it's good to have some (even very little) limitation to prevent abuse.

Tim Kenyon said...

Jeff, your specific claim about strength of commitments to free speech is not well supported by the events (as described, at least). Dottavio seems only to have accommodated the specific laws where he lives -- just as Houle did.

Houle's letter was rather naive, but was also a perfectly correct expression of relevant differences in the laws of Canada and the USA -- relevantly directed to someone noted (and apparently admired, in some Canadian quarters) for her fostering of hatred towards various ethnic, religious, and political demographics. Coulter, an accomplished self-aggrandizer, recognized a gold mine when she saw it, canceled her own performance, and has been laughing all the way to the bank ever since -- bouyed by agreeable free publicity from that ol' librul media.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Tim:

Do you think it is the role of a university vice-president to warn a speaker invited to his university about what can and cannot be said?

I don't think it is. If anything, a university vice-president should take a stand for freedom of expression, not against it.

Michael said...

"Part of the reason is the fact that the US is 10 times larger than Canada. With a much larger population, there are going to be more outliers. "

The difference is that the loonie rhetoric in the USA isn't restricted to the outliers but is part and parcel of the political mainstream, at least on the right. Part of that is because there is no practical defence against lies in US politics. It would be nice to live in a world where corrections and debunking travelled as fast as lies, but we don't. Such research as I've seen, recalled only vaguely, I'll admit, suggests that the usual business of responding with correction and reasoned discourse doesn't get the job done. Now, if there's actual reason to believe it does, I'd be much encouraged, but until then I'm not prepared to make some one principle an absolute in a world where no one principle suffices for all purposes.

As to the use of hate speech laws against the minorities they are supposed to protect, for the time being, in the absence of any references (and a search of the CCLA site for hate speech turned up none), I don't see a reason to move off doubting that there's anything in that line rising to the level of one of the worst things about living in Canada.

Mike from Ottawa

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mike:

The very fact that Houle's letter is being defended by Canadians illustrates my point.

Mike from Ottawa said...

How does the fact some folk disagree with your apparently all but absolutist view of freedom of speech demonstrate that our hate speech laws are one of the worst things about living in Canada?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

How does the fact some folk disagree with your apparently all but absolutist view of freedom of speech demonstrate that our hate speech laws are one of the worst things about living in Canada?

Because academics, more than almost any other class of society, should be defending free expression.

paul01 said...

At least some Canadians agree with you. See

this (the first 3:14 minutes, esp. Andrew Coyne)

Also


this from Rex Murphy on the same evening... (you have to click on the episode for March 25, 2010 in the right-hand sidebar

Anonymous said...

I don't find it a stretch at all that they might be used against people who speak out against fundamentalist religion.

First of all, what does the phrase "fundamentalist religion" even mean?! You mean fundamentalist people?

Second, Ann Coulter called for Muslim-majority countries to be invaded, and for Muslims to be converted to Christianity. If there is someone out there who is fundamentalist and should be spoken against it is Ann Coulter.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Jeffrey Shallit said...
Because academics, more than almost any other class of society, should be defending free expression.

If only they did though! I find that only a small fraction of them do.


Talking about Texas, however, here is a picture, for fun. (Looks like that pedestrians don't have much of a say in Texas...)