Freedom of speech is very important but it is equally important to not give oxygen to lies.
This piece appeared in The Hill Times on January 20, 2020
WE LIVE IN an amazingly fortunate country, don’t we? Sure, there are outstanding issues and problems we must address but when we look at things from 37,000 feet we have it good. We are relatively safe, relatively secure and we are not beset by many of the ills – rampant poverty, disease and violence – that many other nations suffer from.
In this light it is important to safeguard how we got to this blessed state. We are a democracy that abides by rule of law. We have the advantage of being able to ‘throw the bums out’ every four years (or sooner in the case of a minority government: you might want to remember that Mr. Trudeau!). We enjoy freedoms many others can only dream of.
One such freedom is that of speech. Our Charter guarantees this for all Canadians, allowing us to express differences of opinion without fear of retribution or worse. There are exceptions to this as well there should be: obvious hate and exhortation to violence is not ok.
What about obvious lies?
1930 fake news?
An Alberta lecturer has courted controversy over a statement that the Soviet-induced famine in Ukraine in the 1930s is ‘fake news’. Dougal MacDonald claims that the whole incident was a Nazi fabrication, made one supposes to put the Soviets in a bad light. For the record, Mr. MacDonald ran for the Marxist-Leninist Party for Edmonton-Strathcona during the federal election. Hmm, interesting that.
Equally for the record the Canadian government (rightfully) recognised the famine, known as the Holodomot, as genocide in 2003. Casualty figures are hard to determine but at a minimum millions died when the Stalinist regime took food from the mouths of Ukrainians. No one with any shred of credibility denies that this really did happen.
Dougal MacDonald’s insipid views do not belong in Canadian society, let alone on a university campus.
Every decent Canadian would reject a lie of this magnitude. I have to admit a bias in this regard as a third generation (half) Ukrainian-Canadian. I have also tried to educate myself on this man-made tragedy by reading excellent books such as Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine.
Freedom of speech….
All decent Canadians? Apparently not. A coalition of academics at the University of Alberta have come out in support of Mr. MacDonald’s outrageous lies and defended their position using ‘freedom of speech’. Here is what they wrote recently:
The learning environment is not … made ‘safe’ when any individual or group attempts to prevent another’s exercise of freedom of expression…It is fundamentally undermined, as the ability to examine, analyze, and critique all ideas is the lifeblood of the university.
Really? The belief that it is ok to label slow starvation of millions by a bloody regime is ok under freedom of speech provisions? Seriously? I hope the same cabal of academic geniuses consistently defends both those who deny the Holocaust as well as the Rwandan genocide. I await their well-crafted thoughts with bated breath.
The bottom line is that some egregious falsehoods are not defensible under any circumstances. We are not the US where anything goes. I fully admit that there are instances in which there is room for considered debate and that figuring out who decides what is permissible and what is not is fraught with challenges.
What ever happened to the ‘reasonable person’ test? Do we not use ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in our court system to determine guilt or innocence? Could we not apply the same rubric here?
Mr. MacDonald’s insipid views do not belong in Canadian society, let alone on a university campus. Let those who maintain these falsehoods remain in the dark corners of the online world, although we need to monitor that place as well. It is a fact that by allowing this disgusting calumny to be heard we open the door to hatred and, in the worst case scenario, hate-based violence. Just look at what is happening in many countries with white supremacism and neo-Nazi groups. Do we really want to foster something similar here?
Maybe the august panel at the U of Alberta should ask themselves what the difference is between theoretical freedoms and decency.
Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS. His latest book When Religion Kills is now available.