Freedom of Speech: Does not justify being a douche

A recent exchange of… let’s call them opinions… on my Facebook page got me thinking about the concept of free speech.

The short-form background is that I shared an article about the Salvation Army’s clear anti-gay agenda, and alluded to the fact that I will not and do not support this organization.  A Facebook… let’s say acquaintance… of mine then openly endorsed ol’ Sally Ann’s platform.  Upon clarifying this… opinion, I promptly deleted the comments.  I did not think Facebook was the appropriate forum to engage in such a debate nor did I want my profile associated with that kind of sentiment. 

Of course, my censorship of my profile was met in protest: “well, so much for freedom of speech!”

I deleted the protest, too.


The answer is two-fold: (1) Because the term “freedom of speech” is not actually a legitimate cover for racist, sexist or otherwise hateful remarks; and (2) because my personal profile doesn’t apply to this concept, even if it were valid.

Trusty Wikipedia tells me that “freedom of speech” generally is “the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment”.

Well, let me tell you, had I left that comment up there much longer, punishment certainly would have ensued.  I received a handful of texts and others messages about it by the time I’d even noticed it.

On top of the blanket notion of freedom of speech, is the Canadian definition.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees each citizen the freedom of thought, belief, expression, opinion and media.  But there’s a BUT: subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Read that last part again in case you’re not following.  “Reasonable limits prescribed by law.”

To elaborate, no, in Canada you actually are not entitled to spew any inane thing that pops into your head.  You can’t publish false information.  You can’t incite genocide.  You can’t promote hatred against other people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic origin. 

We do not have an absolutist, American-style, First Amendment freedom of speech where even hate speech is generally permitted.  Certain types of speech have consequences under our Criminal Code.

Of course, let us pause for the obligatory Voltaire quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Reciting this almost seems mandatory in discussions about freedom of speech does it not?  (Irony.)  However, in social situations, good sense and common courtesy should dictate that just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.  Lincoln is credited with saying “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

This brings me to the other almost cliché point to be made in the course of this discussion, which is that you still cannot “falsely [shout] fire in a crowded theatre”.  That’s Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., an American Supreme Court Justice who is long deceased.  On the American notion of free speech, it means there are still limits to speech that is dangerous, reckless, malicious or false, and that serves no conceivable useful purpose.  So no, you can’t incite riots below the border, either, and you can still be sued for slander and defamation.

So can you say whatever you want up here in the Great White North?  No, technically you cannot.  I imagine (hope) you can still say most of the things you want to say; we’re just asking that you keep your bigotry to yourself – talkin’ to you, Ms. Coulter.  We distinguish between discourse and discrimination.  This means that you certainly can walk around town with your unfavourable, controversial, or questionable ideas on a sandwich board if you like; you just can’t promote hatred or contempt towards others while doing so.  Given that Canadians are renowned for politeness, and tend to follow the British way of doing things, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

And while some of our neighbours to the south bemoan and ridicule our lack of a no-holds-barred freedom of speech policy, I can only smile as f-bombs and nudity abound on CBC on your average weeknight (warning: this may be hyperbole), while their censors block out “Goddamn”.

Do I think the Canadian fine print leaves us better off?  Hells yes.  I honestly do not believe I have missed out on any significant truths or revelations by being deprived of certain Holocaust-denying treatises and whatnot.  Yet, despite our free speech “restrictions”, I am still aware of these fringe groups and their general platforms, so obviously they’re not that restricted. 

Of course I’m not looking to silence differing opinions, but we need rational thought, discussion and discourse to be productive.  You may not (likely won’t) change anyone’s mind when debating those big-ticket, über-controversial issues, but if you stick to rational, logical arguments and information you might just learn something or teach someone.  Blind, short-sighted, shallow statements that stem from nothing but hate, prejudice and misinformation, however, can be left to the wayside.

The bottom line here?  “Freedom of speech” doesn’t actually apply the way certain folks wish/think it did, especially in Canada, so I’d really like to stop seeing the concept abused; it’s not a free pass for douchebaggery.

Additionally, the only jurisdiction my Facebook profile is under is the Law of Me, so I’ll censor as I see fit.  Being that my blog here has less of an association with my personal life and identity, I will let more things fly in the comments section, so I encourage you to test boundaries.  Unless you’re posting spam, that is – talking to you homeopathic medicine peddlers.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
-Also Voltaire