|SPEECH: Erosion of Free Speech|
Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
Hon. Pamela Wallin: Honourable senators, I am pleased to participate in this inquiry today, which was launched by my colleague, Senator Finley. The right to free speech is not the same as the right to be heard, but their coincidence is at the core of our democracy and is the essence of what democracy is truly all about: The right to say what you mean and the right to be heard.
The first issue is free speech. Since men and women first put pen to paper, or chisel to stone, or since the first political speech was shouted from a corner, or since the first actor took to the stage, many have joined the fight for free speech.
Last century and this one, we have even asked our soldiers, even to this day, to preserve that hard-won right to speak freely and to speak our mind. My mother always counselled me to speak my mind, but only once my mind was informed. I try to follow her advice.
That said, for better or worse, free speech is also about the right to uninformed speech or to speech for those with whom we may most vehemently disagree. Their words may appal us, offend our sensibilities, or make us angry or sad. We have laws, as we must and should, to contain and punish those who spread hate with their words or who demean others based on their race, gender or sexual preference. There are libel and slander constraints, as well.
However, the critic, Noam Chomsky, once stated: "If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise, then we do not believe in it at all."
The recent case of Ann Coulter, a provocative media pundit, mentioned by the honourable senator, is a case in for the many who despise her. If you do, turn off your TV; do not buy her book; debate her; even mock her; but please do not censor her. My colleague quoted Voltaire, the French writer and historian, who also cogently wrote, as Senator Finley mentioned, that "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
In more contemporary terms, others have turned their mind to this issue. A one-time candidate in the United States, Adlai Stevenson, once said: "My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular." I think that is an important idea and concept. Perhaps even more compelling was his comment: "The sound of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear the music of our own opinions."
The Internet discussion that ensued following Ann Coulter's arrival in Ottawa was filled with calls for action: to denounce her, to throw eggs or pie, or to spew their venom. I read a lot of them. Somewhat of an online frenzy of hate was whipped up out of ignorance and intolerance. It was abusive and threatening. Such acts demean us all. Institutions of higher learning should be the last place to expect stifled thought.
One honourable senator today mentioned the case of the professors in Regina. I was truly saddened by the selfish and mean-spirited response of professors there — it is my alma mater — regarding the Project Hero scholarship that provides financial aid to children of fallen soldiers so they might have an education. These are parents who are at war because their country asked them to do so. They are there fighting so that young Afghans can go to school and we think that maybe our soldiers' children should have the same right.
In my profound disagreement with them and others, I will still defend their right — the right of the protestors and the professors to speak — even though I disagree. I use my voice to reply to them and I want my right to do that.
The only way to ensure that you and those you agree with have the right to speak is to support the right to speak of those you despise or do not like — the people with whom you do not agree.
Wendell Phillips once said: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." That is why the honourable senator was right to launch this inquiry. Each time we remain silent in the face of an attack on free speech, we erode it. We lose a little liberty each time someone is silenced.
While Ann Coulter may not share the status of others who have been silenced, such as Nelson Mandela, Charles Darwin, Anne Frank, J. D. Salinger, Alice Walker or even The Beatles, the principle is the same. These are the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with the freedom of the press but the sealing up of a nation's heart, the excision of its memory.
He is one who knows what is it is to be silenced.
It does not matter whether it is a Harry Potter book or the comedy of George Carlin, we must rail against unduly restricting free speech. Carlin said: "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and to cross it deliberately." He at least tried to do so and, with humour and a willingness to fight through the courts for his right to be offensive to some and funny to others, he eventually prevailed.
When free speech is taken away by force or a court, I suppose they can restore it in some senses. However, if we give up free speech without a fight, then it is lost forever.
George Washington said: "If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." Our American friends have been having this battle for centuries. The only legitimate restraint on free speech, they argue, is if it creates clear and present danger. They have modern interpretations of that term. Free speech is one of their inalienable rights.
Through our own French and British cultures and histories, we too have taken on this issue. In fact, the history is long, from Socrates to the Magna Carta, from Milton in 1644 to the English Bill of Rights in 1689 and to the French Revolution, where the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 called for freedom of speech.
The U.S. Bill of Rights declared in 1791 that freedom of speech was an inalienable right. In 1929, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes gave voice to some of the sentiments expressed here today. The principle of free thought is "not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate."
We still have much to battle these days. There are threats to free speech all of the time — too many examples for any of us to cite today. I will leave honourable senators with a final thought. If A.J. Liebling is correct that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," then let us take a page from his legendary book and remember that we own our own thoughts, ideas and speech. We own them, so let us use them and defend them. It is our responsibility as citizens and as representatives of the people of Canada.