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Free Speech Across The Canada-US Border

February 11, 2010
free speech sign

a dedicated 'free speech zone' in the U.S. Image credit: flickr user "jonathanpberger"

Although I’ve often been critical on this blog of what I see as the undue influence of the United States on Canadian society, there is one American concept I wish Canada would emulate as soon as possible: the idea of a near-absolute right to free expression. Of course plenty of non-Americans have argued in favour of free speech, from John Milton on down, and of course America itself still falls well short of the ideal of an intellectually and artistically free society – especially in the area of “obscenity”. But it has to be said that our American neighbours have gone a long way down this path, making their country a natural testing-ground for radical, interesting and sometimes dangerous ideas. At least in the Western tradition, which tends to value intellectual honesty above other considerations such as social harmony, a state that refuses to allow its citizens to discuss such ideas is simply treating them like children.

Recently a case before an American court has highlighted our two countries’ very different approaches to the issue of free speech. The comparison makes Canada look prissy and illiberal and America perhaps a bit – just a little bit – too freewheeling. The case concerns a Canadian human rights lawyer called Richard Warman and an American neo-Nazi called William White. Last year White was convicted by an American court of four charges of threatening and intimidating various people, including Warman. He apparently wrote, among other things, that Warman should be “dragged out into the street and shot, after appropriate trial by a revolutionary tribunal of Canada’s white activists” – and provided Warman’s home address, presumably just in case a tribunal was waiting in some hidden bunker to swing into action.

A judge in the United States has now overturned White’s conviction on this one charge, on the grounds that his actions “could not be considered threats because he had not indicated he intended to commit violence” against Warman. In my ignorance of the fine points of American law, I don’t know whether the judge would have reached a different decision if White had told a specific person to go shoot Richard Warman, instead of merely opining in general that Richard Warman should be shot. I actually think general opining ought to be legal, but general opining plus a home address is awfully close to direct incitement to violence. I hope Canadian judges will always be expected to connect the dots in such cases, however the issue may be handled south of the border. Hence my opinion that the United States takes its commitment to free speech just a little too far, in this one particular area.

Fortunately, three of White’s convictions still stand, and it seems certain that he’ll be heading for prison in short order if he’s not there already. However, it has to be said that White and Warman both strike me as nasty pieces of work who essentially deserve each other, and this is what makes the case interesting. White, as this profile from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) makes clear, is an unbalanced thug who is not even a particularly convincing neo-Nazi. Before he developed a fondness for swastikas and a charming habit of referring to people of African descent as “nig-rats”, he was flitting around a very different part of the political landscape as a self-styled “utopian anarchist” and admirer of Karl Marx. The SPLC profile gives the impression that the more consistent elements in his personality have been egotism, combativeness, and a very short fuse.

Warman, on the other hand, has the thoroughly contemptible distinction of being Canada’s leading initiator of complaints under Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the clause that makes it possible for our glorious human rights bureaucracy to go after people if they “communicate telephonically” anything likely to expose others to hatred and contempt on grounds such as race, sex and religion – even, in an infamous and breathtakingly Orwellian detail , if what they’ve said is demonstrably true. It’s because of people like Warman that I’ve begun to think of “human rights” in the same terms as “family values” or “affirmative action”, phrases that sound both pleasant and harmlessly generic but in fact often stand for a highly specific and unwelcome agenda.

So do I want to see Warman dragged out and shot? Well, no. But a candidate in my riding who promised to do his or her best to put a few well-placed bullets in Section 13 would probably get my vote.

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