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'Free speech,' 'freedom,' the CRTC and Sun News

By 'free speech' some folks mean not 'freedom', or more specifically the ‘freedom to speak to power’, they mean speaking without constraint: saying whatever you want, whenever you want, about whoever you want, wherever you want.

 The notion that 'freedom' equates with 'no constraint' or 'doing what you want' is a notion that's workable until about the age of two -- at which point an infant, becoming a child, encounters considerable limitations on the cuteness of yelling, wrecking stuff, stealing things, breaking things, not sharing anything and shitting in his pants. Up until two that stuff is all pretty workable and, for the child, decidedly enjoyable. Beyond two, totally unconstrained behaviour ceases to be an expression of 'freedom,' and becomes an expression of immaturity.

 'Freedom' is intrinsically tied to constraints. There is no such thing as freedom without constraint, and by constraint I mean notions of discipline, responsibility, limitation and endurance.  Grace, coordination, elegance, duration, truth -- whether in music, poetry, extreme athleticism, the trading floor, the house of parliament, or scientific method -- all require the constant combination of release and constraint. Great creativity is an expression of freedom and, like freedom, great creativity requires great constraint. Stravinsky went so far as to write, "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit."

This week the CRTC is holding hearings into whether Sun News should be given mandatory carriage in every basic cable and satellite package across Canada. Sun News is asking subscribers to pay 18 cents per month, which would generate roughly $18 million, just about the size of its annual losses. Sun News is the media home of 'pundit' Ezra Levant who, in a segment entitled 'The Jew versus the Gypsies' launched into a lengthy diatribe including statements like, "Gypsies are not a race. They're a shiftless group of hobos. They rob people blind. Their chief economy is theft and begging. For centuries these roving highway gangs have mocked the law and robbed their way across Europe."

This is bigotry plain and simple, and is hardly out of character for Levant, already notorious for airing racially charged commentaries on Canadian Indigenous peoples and for being involved in a string of libel suits. The evidence that Sun News is not a serious news channel is affirmed by the fact that Sun News didn't fire Levant then and there. If a commentator on either CBC or CTV, which both enjoyed the initial mandatory carriage that Sun News now seeks, had made such blatantly bigoted statements on air the commentator would be promptly dismissed.

Levant will make the claim, as he often does, that he has his right to 'free speech.' And of course he does have this right, as we all should, so long as it doesn't stray into hate speech. But Levant is not a character who is 'speaking truth to power' like the outrageously courageous souls that an organization like PEN Canada supports. Quite the opposite; Levant's tirades are frequently reserved for the already marginalised, and so his chatter is better depicted as 'speaking power against truth.' Levant is using the power of his place in a news station to make racial slurs and spread bigotry.  This is the opposite of speech that leads to greater freedom.

Defamation, exaggeration and gross caricaturisation are expressions leading not towards freedom, but towards enslavement.  This is speech that engenders hatred and fear, spreads lies, binds minds, closes hearts and creates walls between peoples. Saying whatever you want, whenever you want, about whoever you want, wherever you want, is not a protocol for speech leading to freedom.  Only tyrants, infants, fools, and extremists speak that way.

Unconstrained release is not freedom. Freedom of the heart and mind requires, like creativity, discipline and endurance, but also a sense of responsibility and concern towards others, and towards life itself. Freedom requires care: care for oneself, care for others, and care for what one says about others. Epictetus said that "No man is free who is not master of himself." I think the aphorism could be equally applied to speech.

Nik Beeson is the Digital Communications Director at a Canadian Human Rights org. He is also a musician and composer.

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