January 12, 2008

"I think we know a little more than Voltaire"

When I was in high school, some friends and I started an underground newspaper. We had a lot of fun, wrote and published some funny things. One of my favorites came in response to a school Christmas concert that featured a number of traditional songs like Silent Night. We proposed, for the sake of balance, that there be a companion event with songs like "Om Om Om, yeah yeah yeah," "Good God There is No God" and "Sing a Song of Satan." Much of it was pretty juvenile stuff -- I wrote a piece comparing a clique with the Archies comic characters.

All too predictably, of course, we ran afoul of the school administration, leading to a hearing with some administrators and, I seem to recall, the school board. The mother of one of my co-publishers defended our efforts, leading a school board member to ask what kind of a parent could possibly defend -- and he read something from one of the articles that probably wasn't on a par with the New Yorker. Her son leapt to her defense ("I wasn't going to let him rag on my mom," he later said) and explained, "I think the point my mom is making is like Voltaire. She may not agree with everything we say, but she'll defend our right to say it." (Voltaire's attitude was a bit more forceful.)

The board member responded, "I think we know a little more than Voltaire."

And so, apparently, do the Human Rights Commissions of Canada, which have extralegally claimed jurisdiction over the inalienable right of free speech and free press. I have a horror of any restriction on freedom of speech beyond the very narrow and well defined exception for shouting fire in a crowded theater. Contrary to his exalted view of himself, our school board member was a pinhead all on his own--one need not have compared him to Voltaire to find him wanting.

Ezra Levant, publisher of the now defunct print edition of the Western Standard, has been hauled before one of the Human Rights Commission to defend himself for publishing. We need not offer a predicate: the right to publish what one wants, whether it be essays on Shakerspeare's sonnets or racist bilge or pornography of the most vile sort, is a fundamental right. Making fun of a religion (I am beginning to think of it as a duty) also enjoys absolute freedom.

I am thrilled to see Levant defend himself -- it's well worth watching. I doubt I would share much of his politics, and chances are he wouldn't much care for many of my views, but I was thrilled to watch his opening statement.

Posted by Ideofact at January 12, 2008 11:47 PM

In the broad scheme of things, the exceptions you put under the rubric of "fire in a crowded theatre" may certainly be narrow, but to argue that they are well defined is a stretch...I think that especially with regard to hate speech, fighting words type thing this is an area that is not really well defined at all.

Even if there has been some type of standard established under the U.S. First amendment through a history of court decisions, to assume that exactly the same principles must apply universally to every country has an "inalienable right" (from where?) is something that would have to be established, not assumed.


Abu Noor

Posted by: Abu Noor Al-Irlandee at January 16, 2008 04:01 PM