Columnists

Linda McQuaig
Free speech at risk in Apartheid Week debacle?

| March 10, 2010

It's interesting to imagine what John Stuart Mill would have made of the Ontario Legislature.

The great 19th century political theorist, considered one of the seminal thinkers of Western civilization, is perhaps best known for his fierce defence of free speech as one of the foundations of liberty. Mill surely would have found it curious that elected members of the provincial legislature -- presumably people who value liberty and democracy -- unanimously voted last month to condemn "Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual student-run teach-in held on campuses in Canada and around the world, which takes a critical look at Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.

The attempt by our elected representatives to discourage this sort of critical examination of a nation's policies is particularly disturbing since it was directed at students, who are doing exactly what they should be doing. Our universities should be about more than just preparing young people for a slot in the corporate world. They should be hotbeds of critical thought, places where the conventional wisdom is ruthlessly scrutinized, where sacred cows are slaughtered.

This sort of scrutiny isn't just one of the perks of living in a free society; it's actually an essential tool for preserving that freedom -- according to John Stuart Mill. In his classic text, On Liberty, Mill argues that dissent is essential, because the prevailing view is often wrong, and challenging it helps uncover truth.

Mill insisted this was necessary even when the contrarian views expressed are odious.

But there's nothing odious about Israeli Apartheid Week. Yes, the word "apartheid" is harsh, but Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, who have lived under Israeli military occupation for more than 40 years, is harsh.

And in drawing an analogy to South African apartheid, students are in the company of respected international figures such as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter as well as international jurist and UN human rights rapporteur John Dugard.

Of course, the Ontario legislature didn't ban Israeli Apartheid Week from Ontario campuses. However by condemning it, they are clearly sending a message that this sort of criticism of Israel is considered unacceptable.

But Israel is a country, and Canadians should feel free to criticize its policies, just as we're free to criticize the policies of any country -- without the meddling of politicians.

Mill specifically warned against a legislature presuming to "prescribe opinions to [the people], and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear."

The condemnation by the Ontario legislature -- and a similar motion expected to be introduced in the federal Parliament this week -- suggests that this may be the beginning of a broader attempt to clamp down on criticism of Israel, possibly by designating it "hate speech."

An ad hoc group of 22 parliamentarians, calling themselves the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, has been holding hearings in Ottawa on what it calls the new anti-semitism. The coalition, which includes members from all parties, seems to be trying to broaden the definition of anti-semitism to include criticism of the state of Israel.

If so, will expressions like "Israeli apartheid" be classified as a form of hate speech, and possibly banned or even subjected to punishment under the criminal code?

At the very least, the actions of our elected representatives are sending a chilling message to students to disregard John Stuart Mill. It's okay to read one of the giants of Western thought in class; just don't behave in the way he thought essential to the preservation of liberty.

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