Politics

The Real Threat to Free Speech

Forget anti-Islamophobia legislation. The biggest challenge is coming from activists

Photo by Michael Moore

Students at the Education Day of Action protest at UC Berkeley in 2011. Michael Moore

Last week, conservative pundit Ann Coulter became the latest person to be blocked from speaking at a university. In their letter to the Berkeley College Republicans, the sponsors of the talk, administrators from the University of California, Berkeley explained that it was “not possible to assure that the event could be held successfully—or that the safety of Ms. Coulter, the event sponsors, audience and bystanders could be adequately protected.” Coulter has vowed to show up notwithstanding these security concerns, but the university is pushing to have the talk rescheduled to a later date, when it could be held at a “protectable venue.”

In Canada, controversial speakers rarely provoke threats of violence. But our public is no less thin-skinned. Just last month, Andrew Potter resigned from his post as the director of McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada within days of writing a column about Quebec that sparked controversy on social media. It didn’t matter that Potter apologized almost immediately for the piece, admitting that he’d taken too many liberties. Vocal members of the public wanted his head, and McGill gave it to them.

Many of those who defend Coulter and Potter cry “freedom of speech.” They are not wrong to do so. While the two remain, of course, legally free to say what they want, they are, in practice, a little less free because of what’s happened to them. We all are: everyone has witnessed the societal repercussions of expressing anything too controversial, too unorthodox, or too glib. And, in the future, we will moderate our speech accordingly. Laws may be the bluntest tools for limiting speech, but they are by no means the only—or greatest—reason we have become fearful of speaking out.

Free speech is a commonly used term, but it’s not always well understood. In the legal sense, it refers to Canadians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to express themselves without state interference. This freedom is not absolute, however. The government may pass laws that limit speech, provided they serve a legitimate purpose, such as countering hate speech, defamation, or false advertising.

But institutions, such as workplaces and universities, can also restrict expression. So can our family, friends, and society at large—either through overt bullying or more subtle forms of peer pressure. As Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne has argued, forceful displays of collective disapproval—raucous campus protests, for example—may not necessarily constrain speech, but they can certainly limit it if the pressure they bring to bear becomes unpleasant enough.

There’s also data indicating that social media is having its own speech-suppressing effect. A 2014 Pew Research Center study of 1,800 Americans found that social media is nurturing a “spiral of silence.” Regular Facebook and Twitter users were more likely to avoid sharing their opinions online if they felt their views differed from those of family members and peers. A 2015 study in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking that focused specifically on online political commentary reached similar conclusions: social-network users who received negative reactions to their posts were more likely to self-censor, becoming “less likely to respond to disagreeable posts and more likely to refrain from posting their own content due to fear of others’ reactions.”

Most worryingly, these online effects were found to carry over to in-person behaviour. According to the Pew study, frequent social-media users were half as likely as non-users to share their opinions in real-world settings, particularly if they felt their Facebook friends or Twitter followers didn’t agree with them.

“Private citizens are increasingly weaponizing their expression,” writes David French in a National Review column. “[They use their] power not to engage in debate but to silence dissent.” French argues that free speech is threatened far more by these social pressures than by narrow speech laws. After all, such tactics risk suppressing not merely harmful expression (the current target of speech laws), but also potentially valuable expression by ideological minorities and unorthodox thinkers.

While social suppression of speech is not a new phenomenon—John Stuart Mill wrote about it in 1869—social media has amplified the threat, because we are constantly engaging directly with “the masses.” When we post articles or comment on others’ feeds, we are acutely aware that our expression can be seen, and judged, by thousands. As Derek Thompson observes in 1843 Magazine:

On Facebook and Twitter, large audiences consist of concentric circles of intimacy, that move from close friends to far-flung colleagues to people we don’t know at all but who, we worry, will judge us nonetheless. In a way that would be impossible offline, the internet requires us to cater to the prejudices of strangers. The mere knowledge that we are being observed changes what we say.

It’s impossible to measure what is lost through the expressive homogeneity that these networks encourage. Even if a dissenting viewpoint is without merit, exposure to it may serve as a kind of intellectual whetstone, helping to sharpen one’s opinions. “In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so?” Mill asked. “Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct.” And the benefits of free speech may be more considerable: providing inspiration for new ideas, or prompting us to jettison uninformed opinions in favour of more enlightened ones.

Of course, the tricky challenge of the social censure of speech is that it’s the product of free speech: one person’s speech suppression is the effect of another’s free expression. When others say things we disagree with, we—rightly—feel inclined to respond. But raising objections is, in itself, not the problem. The issue tends to be of a more contextual nature: one’s choice of tone, methods, and words. To be called “racist, a fascist, or sexist”—an experience described by young conservatives in this BBC News video—is altogether different from being respectfully engaged with on the substance of one’s ideas. There is no reason to assume that someone who skews to the conservative end of the political spectrum is akin to so-called “alt-right” figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer.

Free-speech advocates in Parliament, the media, universities, and advocacy organizations might view cultural threats to speech as being outside the ambit of their concern. But, if so, then what exactly is their concern? If their goal is to advance the core values that the legal freedom of expression exists to protect—rational discourse, individual progress, and responsible government—any cultural threats to free speech should be as much their focus as legal ones. But if many free-speech advocates were honest with themselves, they’d realize that they’ve lost sight of this end game, or are using free-speech claims to advance insidious goals.

Take Motion M103, the Liberal-sponsored motion that called on the House of Commons to “condemn Islamophobia.” Conservative leadership contenders such as Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander immediately lined up against it, claiming it risked interfering with free speech—despite the fact that it obviously did no such thing. M103 wasn’t a law, nor was it on its way to becoming one. Undeterred by such technicalities, they persisted in railing against it, even participating in a Freedom to Offend rally, hosted by right-wing online media outlet the Rebel, which was aimed at stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. (As one Rebel article hysterically proclaimed: “Canada is on the verge of passing what amounts to Islamic blasphemy laws.”)

Similarly extreme rhetoric is often on display in relation to hate-speech laws. As Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor and leading speech expert, has written, free-speech advocates often make it seem as if the “integrity of the free speech edifice” hangs on abolishing hate-speech laws. Moon has been disturbed by the “disinformation campaign” he’s seen Ezra Levant, Mark Steyn, and others wage against hate-speech laws and the provincial human rights bodies that enforce them—as if human rights commissions were the one thing standing in the way of speech being really free. Their strategy, Moon observes, is to cherry-pick the worst commission decisions, intimate that commission staff are corrupt, and report numbers (such as conviction rates) that are misleading out of context.

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson could also be accused of waging an exaggerated campaign against Bill C-16, the legislation that could compel federal service-providers to use a transgender person’s preferred pronoun upon request. While Peterson has expressed principled reasons for opposing a law that compels speech, he has at times seemed incapable of restricting his case to the legitimate, if limited, flaws of the bill (and the accompanying HRC policies). He has exaggerated Bill C-16’s threat (suggesting it could compel employees to use entire vocabularies against their choosing) and spread misunderstandings about the law (suggesting it would be a hate crime to not use a person’s preferred pronoun).

Unfortunately, figures such as Leitch and Levant have become the face of free-speech activism, which is a problem if the public comes to conflate free-speech advocacy with a fight to say hateful things. An overly narrow focus on speech laws is also a recipe for irrelevance. When there are widespread threats to speech playing out online, in universities, and around water coolers, speech proponents’ fanatical focus on protecting individuals’ right to express the odd harmful word is like missing a forest fire while trying to save trees.

Fortunately, there are admirable free speech proponents across the country—organizations such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF), and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, as well as politicians such as Michael Chong and Maxime Bernier—who can be trusted to responsibly counter the erosion of free speech.

What’s more, some of these advocates have already demonstrated their willingness to move beyond the limiting debates about laws to focus on broader cultural limitations on speech. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, for example, has started raising awareness about university speech cultures by publishing an annual Campus Freedom Index, which grades Canadian universities on everything from their willingness to cancel scheduled speakers, to the existence of codes of conduct that prohibit unpopular speech.

Similarly, chapters of the Runnymede Society—a sister organization of the CCF—have been springing up on Canadian campuses since 2015. The group’s founding mission is to “foster intellectual diversity, rigour, and dialogue in Canadian law schools”—a mission it advances by hosting thought-provoking speakers who, among other things, explore the role of law, institutions, and society in promoting speech. Now these advocates must push themselves to go even further: to treat off-campus speech issues as seriously as they do on-campus ones.

In many ways, this challenge will be greater than opposing legal constraints on speech. The target is less concrete than a law, and more abstract than the government. But in other ways, the task may be easier. After all, the upside of this challenge is that it’s one every citizen has a role in counteracting. But speech advocates will need to start making the case for why free speech matters, and to start encouraging individuals to consider how their conduct serves to foster—or limit—respectful dialogue.

In an era when it’s easy to do otherwise, citizens must be encouraged to boldly voice contrarian opinions rather than simply mimicking orthodox ones, to respond to challenging viewpoints with measured consideration rather than self-righteous indignation, and to consume information that expands their intellectual horizons rather than confining them. It is lazy to assume Canada has a robust speech culture simply because the government rarely stops us from saying what we want. And it’s even lazier to think that the odd speech law is the only kind of speech restriction that matters.

Lauren Heuser is an editorial fellow at The Walrus.

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