On June 6 (the same night that the trans human rights Bill C-279 advanced to committee) Conservative MP for Westlock – St. Paul, Brian Storseth’s private member’s bill C-304, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (protecting freedom), passed third reading in the House of Commons, and advanced to the Senate for ratification. Bill C-304 abolishes Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which pertains to electronic communication of hate speech.
Sun Media commentator Ezra Levant barely got through taking credit for the bill’s passage before taking advantage of a recent censure of comments he made on his television show to change focus and declare his intent to destroy the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) within the coming year, in the name of freedom of speech.
Both are the culmination of roughly 10 years of media campaigning against speech-related laws and standards, and while the principle of freedom of speech is admirable, the application being upheld and idealized by speeches is already showing its proponents’ hypocrisy.
Bill C-304 is one of several private members’ bills that pundits have been watching, concerned that the procedure may be used by Conservatives to pass legislation that the party wants to maintain some plausible deniability about (another bill which has provoked concern is Blake Richards’ C-309, which proposes to ban masks at protests). And given the questionable Reform Party-era ties to hate groups, plausible deniability was probably a politically prudent approach for the Conservatives to take. Liberal and NDP Members of Parliament have previously spoken out against Storseth’s bill, but often expressed that they felt it was too contentious to pass.
Section 13 was one of the approaches used to defuse the inciting of racial hatred in Canada, and had been thought of as a way to keep neo-Nazis in check, although its historical use has been mixed and controversial. Ernst Zundel was the focus of several different actions against hate speech that he published in print and on his website, before he was finally deported to Germany, where they had no qualms about convicting him of 14 counts of inciting racial hatred. In December 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada also finally upheld a conviction against Jim Keegstra for a 1984 arrest after teaching Social Studies students that the Holocaust never happened.
But hate speech legislation began to lose popular support when it was used to target Macleans magazine and writer Mark Steyn for articles promoting what evolved into “Demographic Winter” lore (i.e. fears that Islamic fundamentalists were outpopulating Western nations and would “win” by sheer numbers). It was also used against former Western Standard publisher turned Spin News Network commentator and entertainer Ezra Levant for publishing cartoons that portrayed the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist. Proceedings were later thrown out or dropped, but not without some personal cost to each, highlighting some concerns that call for some legitimate reform.
Personally, I’m not all that partial to speech legislation. I do agree that there needs to be something there to address the extremes of Zundel and Whatcott, but also that there has to be restraint on its use and the way it’s prosecuted. But at the same time, for as much as there are accusations of “fascist” motives from both left and right-wing pundits in our increasingly polarized political climate, the abolition of speech law does disarm a tool that could have provided a means to bring something of that nature about.
Free Speech and the responsibility that comes with it
I wrote about the subject earlier, when discussing Bill Whatcott’s Supreme Court trial, a proceeding which concerns a Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ruling:
Hateful speech is never free. While an individual comment, or poster, or ad, or flyer may be free speech, the weight of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions serve to demonize communities, alienate them, and discourage them from participating in society. As it becomes more common, accumulated hatefulness makes it seem acceptable or (to some) even necessary to act on that, and by knowing this, entire communities are terrorized in a way by each new onslaught.
And yet there is a danger in criminalizing speech. The same groups that hate is already designed to silence and intimidate into hiding could very easily become the same groups that society seeks to silence first, when given the tool of speech legislation.
Ideally, hateful speech should be answered, and called out. Hateful speech must be answered. It must be responded to. Freedom of speech is not simply a question of saying or publishing anything and everything that one might wish to say. It comes with a responsibility to answer to these things, and call them out as attitudes that need to change. The problem is that it typically isn’t answered to by the majority, and if sufficient inequality or disparate antipathy exists, the minority may either feel too disenfranchised to respond, or the channels that they need to respond in aren’t interested in giving them the opportunity.
Spin News Network personalities get particularly poor marks for positioning themselves as apparent free speech champions by promoting Islamophobes like Geert Wilders and trying to provoke hate speech complaints of their own, while at the same time making a point to run Charles McVety’s transphobic / homophobic ads without criticism or contrary opinion, calling to ban Islamic speakers, and justifying the barring of entry to people like Bill Ayers. If freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to counter those things that are hateful, then Sun Media has repeatedly shed that responsibility whenever it has been politically inconvenient to their editorial viewpoint, like skin of an embarrassing colour.
In addition to facilitating dialogue instead of squelching it, freedom of speech also comes with a responsibility to maintain some civility and decorum. Canada’s speeches often fail on that count as well. In the most recent example, Levant was condemned by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for an uncivil tirade last December, and his response was to flip CBSC the bird. Civility too, it seems, is no longer in fashion.
Broadcast standards under fire
Levant took the opportunity to take up a campaign to destroy the CBSC:
“According to the Canadian Broadcast Stan- uh, Censors Council, that’s not actually what got me in trouble. What got me in trouble was my point of view. I wasn’t -quote- ‘balanced.’ Now, I have an opinion, that’s my job actually, to have an opinion. I don’t pretend to be a ‘neutral’ reporter here, my job is to put out my opinion forcefully….”
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council was set up at the initiative of Canadian television networks, for the purpose of establishing limits that would help immunize the industry against the kinds of complaints that could potentially result in a drive toward real censorship. It has allowed the actual government body in play — the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — to refer complaints back to a body that champions the idea of media policing itself, rather than taking any binding action of its own. Spin News Network has been upset with the CRTC ever since the latter twice refused to make special exceptions for the station so that it could have preferred carrier status, which would put it near the top of the dial and make it mandatory for cable networks to provide it prominently. It’s not hard to guess who
foxnewsnorth‘s Sun TV’s endgame target will be, but for now, the buffer of the CBSC is in the way.
To that end, Ezra Levant has promised a 5-point campaign to destroy the Council within the coming year, by:
1. Systematically violating the CBSC’s standards on a daily basis, and inviting other censured people on his program for the purpose of reoffending;
2. Picking out what Levant describes as inconsistencies and phrasing the CBSC’s function as being outside the law — of course, the CBSC wasn’t set up as a legal body (and consequently, its rulings are non-binding), but as a voluntary code of practices that televised media in Canada decided to set for itself and abide by;
3. Mobilizing right-wingers to comment and blog incessantly on the subject;
4. Getting a bill started in Parliament — this could be interesting, since the CBSC is not a government body nor a legal body, but a voluntary media board (though to be fair, for a station to get a better placement on the dial, there is a CRTC requirement to abide by the code); and
5. Mobilizing viewers to flood MPs, the PM and the Heritage Minister with emails and letters
So, far from accepting the responsibilities that go with freedom of speech, Sun News Network and at least one commentator are dedicated to actively working against anything that encourages these responsibilities, however symbolic and voluntary it might be.
The Overton Window and Harper’s stake
To be fair, Spin News Network and Sun Media are private corporations, and not under any obligation to provide air time or column space to dissenting voices, although arguing this point says something interesting about fair and unbiased media in Canada. For the Harper Conservatives, reaping the accolades from right-wing supporters over the passage of C-304 and acting as a government that is supposed to work on behalf of all Canadians, the same can’t be said.
The Harper Government has played both sides of the “free speech” equation by happily positioning themselves as free speech champions, while waging an economic stifling of speech through the defunding of environmental science, Status of Women groups, Aboriginal advocacy and human rights organizations and yet maintaining charitable status and even financial subsidies for partisan political supporters and think tanks that consistently produce convenient reports. At times, the government’s imbalanced treatment has led to intimidation tactics and accusations of terrorism in order to marginalize political opponents. The end result is a faux free-speech environment in which state sanctioned speech is signal-boosted to the tune of millions of dollars, and dissent is economically marginalized to the point of having little to no avenue through which to counter spin.
Here’s why these responsibilities matter. Before his death in 2003, Joseph Overton, vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (a think tank devoted to free market ideology), proposed a political concept that has since become known as “The Overton Window.” At any given moment, the window of popular sentiment and political viability is in flux, and the key to achieving policy is to expand or shift the window to encompass it. This is done by changing the conversation through several means — including repetition, erasure and ridicule of opposition, manipulation and spin — until an idea shifts from being previously unthinkable and then radical to becoming acceptable, seemingly sensible and then popular… until it is inevitably established as policy.
If this resonates with the dramatic polarization that has been taking place in the past few years on political topics like environmentalism, abortion and birth control, government budgeting and austerity, LGBT rights, police powers, public health care, bullying, and social programs like EI and welfare, then you’ve obviously noticed the explosion of concerted campaigns to shift that window. And move, it clearly has. I’m betting that most of us in our lifetime never would have thought we’d be fighting for the availability of the Pill, watching neo-conservatives fight for the right to deny medical care, or expecting CNN to run a semi-sympathetic profile of a “kinder, gentler” Ku Klux Klan.
This happens not from free speech, but from abdicating the responsibilities that come with it — or, in the case of defunding and silencing unfavourable speech, making concerted efforts to control the conversation.
The free speech advocates in media and government are less interested in promoting diversity of speech, and more interested in shifting the window of where and how that speech occurs.
(Crossposted to Dented Blue Mercedes)