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How free speech was used as a weapon in the debate at Halifax Pride

Image: Ludovic Bertron

The coup d'état that happened at Wednesday's Halifax Pride meeting is an important warning for progressives everywhere -- our organizing work is never finished.

I won't get into the details of the meeting. El Jones was present and her take is in-depth and required reading if you're following the saga.

What I'm more interested is the weaponization of free speech over the course of this debate.

Free speech is a fundamental value of Western society, just like democracy and equality among citizens. There are elements of free speech that are critical and must be defended vigorously.

It is also one of those values that is used as a way to disorient, confuse, obscure or end the debate.

The reality is that like democracy and equality, access is never equal. Some people will always have more access to democracy. Some people will always be more equal. Some people will always have more free speech.

That's because we live in a society steeped in oppression, where the tyranny of the perceived majority (white men) reaches into every aspect of our lives. Organizations like Halifax Pride are, of course, not immune. And when difficult debates emerge that will test the political culture, the solidarity and the analysis of an organization, society's systemic oppressions tend to shine through.

It must be stated, to start, that our right to free speech has many, many limits on it. If you're an activist, you may have had your free speech trampled on by a lawsuit, a lawsuit threat, other kinds of threats, intimidation, harassment, your capacity to express yourself because of your socio-economic position and so on. If you're a queer parent, your "free speech" is tightly regulated by the state, healthcare norms and the education system. Free speech protections do not stop someone from suing you, or from someone hurting your feelings. They're meant to stop the state from interfering in our right to say what we want. This becomes critical when what we say conflicts with or criticizes prevailing government thinking.

Free speech protections should offer citizens of any opinion the right to express that opinion without being thrown in jail.

This is why organizations like Halifax Pride even exist: to take space in society that has told them to hide for generations. To bolster the capacity of queer and trans Haligonians to access free speech and free expression like privileged groups in society, or like any other festival might, especially considering the persecution queer and trans people face.

When a motion came forward to debate whether or not the Size Doesn't Matter campaign should be uninvited to Pride, the free speech was used over and over. Critics argued that uninviting an organization is an attack on their free speech.

Not quite. Halifax Pride isn't the Government of Canada. They cannot issue decrees of who should be thrown in jail. Their army is unarmed and puny. As an organization that has a membership structure with AGMs and open debates, they quite literally cannot attack someone's Free Speech.

What they can do is decide who gets to participate. Now, if you're a older white cisgender man, of comfortable income and a sexual preference for women, you might have steeped within you two hardcore beliefs: that the kids should get off your lawn when you yell at them, and that you have a right to access any space that you'd like.

Halifax Pride is inherently a closed space. They ask that you, at the very least, are an ally to the LGTBQ+ community. Its members get to choose who, what and how their events happen. It's as basic a principle that extends from Lion's Club Halls to the Knights of Columbus, to the Optimists (the exclusion of the Pessimist perspective is not an attack on pessimists' free speech).

Here is where things get pearshaped: the debates leading up to the AGM hinged on this bogus free speech entitlement, mostly coming from folks organized with the Atlantic Jewish Council. Their members decided that they should take over Halifax Pride and defend the honour of the Size Doesn't Matter campaign.

Fine.

And they succeeded. They took it over. They took up space. They forced racialized queer and trans people out of the room. They never had to demonstrate their allyship to the Halifax queer and trans community. And their vote carried the day.

By their logic, they effectively shut down the free speech of Halifax Pride activists who have been in it for the long haul.

And here, we see the limits of that analysis. One minority group going all out against several other, different minority groups. Except, many of the folks from the Atlantic Jewish Council are people who occupy comfortable social locations and openly flaunted their straightness. Their conduct was not an attack on anyone's free speech, just like the original motion wasn't an attack on free speech. It was simply the limits of a space that depends on people's good will and good faith.

Haligonians should be concerned with what happened at the Halifax Pride AGM. Deeply concerned. This isn't a question about free speech, it's actually an example of how little power Queer and Trans people in Halifax truly have over their own decisions. Would the vote have been different had the Atlantic Jewish Council not have stacked the meeting? Probably, but that hardly matters. This is a classic example of where one group hides behind the guise of free speech until the moment where they can take their free speech and beat it over the head of everyone else.

The support for the Tel Aviv tourist campaign, it must be noted, is very much in-line with current government policy and approach to Israel. In fact, even criticizing Israel has nearly become a crime in Canada.

This bit of irony shouldn't be lost on anyone.

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Image: Ludovic Bertron

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