“Newspapers across Europe reprinted cartoons Wednesday ridiculing the prophet Muhammad, saying they wanted to support the right of Danish and Norwegian papers to publish the caricatures, which have ignited fury among Muslims throughout the world.” Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2006
“Do I think Faith Goldy’s back story is commendable? No. Appearing on a neo-Nazi podcast and reciting slogans associated with Nazism is distasteful, destructive to healthy race relations and completely deserving of harsh criticism.” Lindsay Shepherd, Maclean’s magazine, March 22, 2018 discussing her decision to invite Goldy to speak on campus.
The term free speech (or freedom of expression) is used in an increasingly partisan and strategic way in public debate.
It is worth remembering then that a commitment to free speech means protecting speech for reasons more basic than our agreement with its message. There may be forms or instances of speech, such as individual defamation or deceptive advertising or hate promotion, that should be restricted because of the harm they cause. But the scope of these limits on speech should be very narrow. We should not censor speech simply because we think its message is wrong or offensive.
The standard view is that we protect speech because the free exchange of ideas is necessary to democracy, the growth of knowledge and the development of individual judgement. The individual must be free to speak but also to hear what others may say without interference from the state.
It has also been said that the answer to bad or erroneous speech is more and better speech.
The credo of civil libertarians
This understanding of freedom of expression lies behind the statement, often attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This has been the credo of civil libertarians such as the late Alan Borovoy, formerly general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who regarded hate speech as odious but was nevertheless prepared to defend the right of others to engage in it.
His opposition to the restriction of hate speech rested on a commitment to the free exchange of ideas, a belief in the capacity of citizens to recognize truth and a concern about the reach of state power. I had many conversations with Alan Borovoy over the years and, while we disagreed on the particular issue of hate speech regulation, I never doubted the sincerity and seriousness of his position.
There is, however, an increasingly popular idea that free speech should be defended not simply by fighting against censorship, but also by republishing or repeating views that are considered by some to be offensive and bigoted or by giving “controversial” speakers a platform, and publicity, that may not be available to others.
The Danish cartoons
In 2005, a number of magazines and newspapers republished the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, claiming that they did so in order to vindicate free speech.
There were a variety of objections made to the cartoons, and in particular to the cartoon in which the prophet’s turban was made to look like a bomb. The cartoons were considered by some to be blasphemous or defamatory towards Muslims. The principal objection, though, seemed to be that matters that were sacred to a religious community were mocked or ridiculed, causing hurt or offence to the members of that community.
Student and other groups at universities have also invited individuals who have expressed bigoted views in the past to speak at campus events, ostensibly in order to advance free speech.
People like Jordan Peterson and Mark Steyn have received awards, as defenders of free speech, because they have insisted on their right to express views that are hurtful or offensive to others.
It hardly needs saying that that the repetition of offensive or hurtful words increases their circulation and gives them greater credibility. But, of course, in most if not all cases, the individual who claims simply to be defending the right to free speech by republishing the Danish cartoons or inviting Faith Goldy or Ann Coulter to speak on campus, is in fact sympathetic to the message being conveyed.
By shifting the focus to the defence of free speech, the speaker, or their sponsor, can defend the speech without directly defending the merits of what is said. Indeed, for some time now, hate-mongers have found it strategically useful to present themselves as defenders of free speech.
This is a more palatable way of defending speech that carries a message that is hateful and often harmful. The shift from advocate of hate to defender of free speech fits well with the hate-monger’s claim that he or she is a victim of state oppression and defender of Western values.
From hate advocate to free speech ‘warrior’
Most of the offensive or hurtful words uttered by individuals such as Mark Steyn or Goldy or Coulter do not amount to hate speech (which restricts only the most extreme instances of bigoted speech) and so are protected by the constitutional right to free speech.
But that is not itself a reason to repeat their words or to give them a special platform. To have a right to say something is not itself a reason to say it — or to repeat it.
Indeed, there are good reasons to refrain from repeating speech that offends or defames the members of certain groups. The principle of free speech can be defended without re-enacting the injury to a group that feels misrepresented and marginalized by this speech.
Free speech may protect speech that is offensive or hurtful, including some forms of bigoted speech, but we degrade this central right when we see it as simply the right to offend or the right to say whatever we feel like saying, regardless of the impact on others.
We should defend the right to free speech without honouring or aiding those who express bigoted or offensive views.