Freedom to be heard
Inconsistencies around freedom of speech
But the freedom of speech means nothing without the freedom to be heard.
For this reason, the laws which protect our right to pursue knowledge are so much stronger than the laws which limit our exposure to harmful or damaging information, and thankfully so.
Were it otherwise, we may have lost Timothy Findley’s classic Canadian novel, The Wars, and its damning account of the madness of war in 1991, when a high school student complained that a scene wherein the protagonist is raped by his fellow soldiers pressured students to accept homosexuality.
We may also have lost John Steinbeck’s novel about the futility of the American dream, Of Mice and Men, in 1994 when Alberta MLA Victor Doerksen who claimed that the book be banned from schools for profaning the name of Jesus Christ.
It is our mandate to safeguard our access to these books, regardless of who they offend.
Personally, I have a hard time coming to terms with Lolita’s pedophilia and I find The Anarchist Cookbook’s promotion of terrorism to be offensive.
It would be selfish of me, however, to believe that my feelings are more valuable than our society’s right to free speech.
My being offended is a problem for me and me alone.
Take, for example, an issue that has offended many Calgarians: anti-abortion protestors.
The pro-life movement is known for its use of extremely graphic imagery, specifically images of aborted fetuses, as a shock tactic in their anti-abortion protest campaign.
These demonstrations are a common occurrence around the city and most Calgarians have seen them in one form or another.
They post these images on the sides of billboard-sized trucks, they hand out pamphlets with these images on street corners and, famously, they delivered these pamphlets to houses in Calgary’s Nose Hill electoral-riding in 2014 in an attempt to discredit Conservative MP Michelle Rempel.
Whether or not the method in which they deliver this information is ethical is an issue for another week. What is important now is that it the imagery does not fall within the Criminal Code of Canada, section 163(8)’s definition of obscenity, and is therefore protected under Canadian law.
More pointedly, although the University of Calgary’s administration has banned the Campus Pro-Life group from demonstrating on campus after an incident on April 8, 2010, the school has pointedly allowed these protests for years, the most recent of which occurred on March 2.
The university decided that the spirit of inquiry and of open debate is more important than the sensibilities of their students, which is exactly what an educational institution is supposed to do.
To compromise, however, the school still posts sandwich boards to warn students who are walking towards the anti-abortion protests, which do not offer any protection to students with classes to attend near the demonstrations.
SAIT graduate and current University of Calgary student, Maite Caamano-Walton, witnessed the March 2 demonstration on her way to class.
“I have the freedom to listen to, learn about, or view content as I see fit,” said Caamano-Walton. “These kinds of protests don’t give me that choice.”
Both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantee her freedom of conscience and her right to seek and receive information.
Unfortunately for Caamano-Walton, neither protects her from being exposed to media which she finds “disgusting and gross” outside the comfort of her home.
At some point, we need to stop and recognize that the world we live in is entirely provisional.
Offensive or not, opinions are neither good nor bad. They are simply the best we currently have. And if we fail to allow our beliefs to compete against one another, then they are also the best we’ll ever have.
To disallow a dissenting opinion from entering the arena of free discussion is to deny your own belief the chance to prove its value, and to deny yourself a chance to be proven wrong.
Ultimately, by censoring another’s opinion and denying that voice the right to be heard, one only does a disservice to one’s self.