3 min

Free speech is a two-way street

Fight words with words, not censorship

What is it about free speech that folks just don’t understand?

Maybe, it’s the part about being offended.

Gay folks have often been the victims of censorship. Gay representations have long been subject to obscenity prosecutions, Customs seizures, film censorship and the like. And we have screamed about it, and taken it to court, and sometimes won, and sometimes lost.

And, then some of us turn around and try to censor speech we don’t like.

The brouhaha over Elephant Man at Carleton University is only the most recent example of gay folks demanding the censorship of a voice that they don’t like. The show scheduled for Carleton was cancelled, as was a Toronto show because of Elephant Man’s anti-gay lyrics.

There are, unfortunately, lots of similar examples. Like the human rights case in Alberta where University of Alberta gay education advocate Darrel Lund has launched a complaint with the Human Rights Commission against a Christian Pastor for promoting hatred. Or when gay folks support hate speech legislation.

Here’s the thing: free speech cuts both ways. We get to say stuff that offends other people. And other people get to say stuff that offends us.

And round and round it is supposed to go.

Except that it doesn’t. Because somebody gets offended, and down comes the call for censorship.

Now, we certainly are not alone in our impulse to censor. Our enemies do it too. Conservative folks are happy to censor gay speech and representations. But, they scream and yell when their speech is censored or silenced.

Two faced? Absolutely. But, so are we if don’t suppress our own urge to censor.

And then there is the bizarre equation of criticism with censorship. Somebody gets offended because somebody criticized them, and that criticism is called censorship.

Here’s an example: Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason recently dusted off the Margaret Somerville controversy at Ryerson University (Globe and Mail, Sep 29, 2007). A few years ago, Ryerson decided to give her an honorary degree, and was caught off guard when all of her anti-gay positions were suddenly in the limelight, as students and professors protested the conferral of the University’s most prestigious recognition. Mason used the protest to tirade against the repression of free speech on university campuses. And he highlighted (as many others did at the time) the fact that when she got up to receive her award, many students and professors performed their protest by turning their backs.

Huh? The expression of dissent through a very public statement of “we don’t like your views” becomes censorship in Mason’s analysis. Who got censored here? Not Somerville. And not the dissenters. Both got their platforms to say that they didn’t like each other.

But, the turning of the backs is then equated with other examples of censorship on campuses, like the controversy at the University of British Columbia about whether to let the Canadian Armed forces recruiters on campus, or the one at Carleton about banning anti-abortion pamphlets.

There is a difference — a very big difference — between saying “I don’t agree with you”, and censoring the speech. Banning pamphlets is censorship. Denouncing the pamphlets as hateful violations of women’s rights or however else the pro-choice advocates want to spin it — well, that’s free speech. Just like turning backs, or holding up signs that say “your views are offensive”.

In fact, this seems to be a new strategy of our conservative opponents. When we criticize them as homophobic, they call us intolerant censors. In the debates in the United States over gay marriage, and whether to amend the US Constitution to prevent it, the conservatives routinely said “it is offensive for you to say that we are discriminating”.

Liberal denunciation of homophobia and discrimination is met with moral outrage and offense: how dare you call us that!

This is an increasingly common strategy amongst our enemies. For them, freedom of expression is a one-way street. They get it. We don’t. (kind of like all the other rights that they would like to keep for themselves). And if we try to use it, they denounce us as censoring

This is bizarre enough it in its own right. But, it’s worse if we participate in the same behavior.

So, what is the right response to speech that offends us?

Well, we could just cover our ears and say “wa, wa, wa” really loudly to ourselves. Or we could meet it with more speech. More speech that says “hey, you, that’s really homophobic, stupid, reactionary, conservative.” Whatever, just fill in the blank. But, we have to fill in the blank — with arguments about what is wrong with the speech, and why our arguments are more persuasive and why we have the norms of equality and respect and dignity on our side.

No doubt, our opponents will call us censors when we do. But, at least we will be on more solid ground if we actually do stop censoring, and start fighting words we don’t like with the words that we prefer.