South China Morning Post
July 28, 2004

Speak no evil
- by Claude Adams, Vancouver

If you ask them, bureaucrats and politicians will always argue for free speech. The trouble is, most only support it in the abstract. Put them within earshot of a rude opinion or a politically incorrect comment, and they will reach for the censor's red pencil. You could call them the "Free Buts", as in: "I believe in freedom of expression, but..."


Recently, a Canadian government agency revoked the licence of a radio station in Quebec City that attracts 80,000 listeners a day. It acted after receiving 42 complaints over two years from "offended" listeners. What offended them? Comments about the size of a woman's breasts; that a psychiatric patient "doesn't deserve to live"; and that some foreign students in Canada were the sons of "plunderers and cannibals". The agency's mandate is to protect the "social fabric" of Canada, whatever that is, so those 80,000 fans will now have to listen to contemporary jazz, or something equally inoffensive.

Two days later, the same agency gave a reluctant approval to a licence for al -Jazeera, the Arab-language TV news network. But there was a catch. The cable companies that carried the network would have to agree to cut any "abusive comment". What constitutes "abusive"? the companies asked. You decide, said the agency. No thanks, said the cable companies, which did not want to try to adjudicate on good taste. That is tough for 500,000 Arab-Canadians who are looking for an alternative to CNN and Fox News.

Some critics call these the actions of a "nanny state". Freedom of speech, they argue, must include the freedom to say things that will upset somebody else. If the message is offensive, allow the market place to take care of it. Ignore it. Change channels. Take the offender to court.

An editorial in The Globe & Mail said: "No one outside China or Zimbabwe would dream of shutting down a newspaper over an offensive cartoon or ranting commentary."

The philosopher John Stuart Mill said that the free clash of opinions, even if they are outrageous, helps crystallise our beliefs. For months now, Ernst Zundel, a German-Canadian, has been sitting in a jail cell awaiting deportation. His offence is the conviction, expressed over again, that the Jewish Holocaust never happened. Critics tried to prosecute him under hate literature laws, but failed. Zundel was then convicted of spreading "false news". But the Supreme Court overturned the verdict.

Finally, authorities detained him under Canada's murky new security laws, meant to deal with terrorism. Zundel will almost certainly be deported, not for anything he has done, but for his foolish beliefs. That is called security.
 

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