The Price of Democracy Is Free Speech for Our Opponents

By Gerry Bowler
Gerry Bowler
Gerry Bowler
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
June 15, 2020Updated: June 15, 2020


A number of Canadians seem to be having a problem with listening to people with whom they disagree.

Journalists at the National Post complained recently to their editors that a column by Rex Murphy in which he claimed that Canada was not a racist society was lazy, ignorant, and dehumanizing to black and indigenous people. They claimed that by publishing such a piece the newspaper made journalists of colour feel unwelcome. A two-hour “town hall” on racism at the National Post ensued.

In Edmonton, a professor of anthropology was fired from her administrative position because she believed in the reality of biological sex and questioned allowing transgender women in women’s prisons. Apparently this made some students “uncomfortable.” An official of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual minority Studies and Services claimed that the professor’s dismissal did not violate academic freedom, which apparently does not cover expressing such degrading opinions.

Lawyer Danielle Robitaille was forced to cancel a lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University, citing threats from student protestors who said her presence on campus could traumatize victims of sexual assault. Her crime was to have legally represented Jian Ghomeshi, who had been acquitted of such charges.

Canadian universities are famous for preventing the appearance of speakers whose ideas run against the predominant cultural current and who are opposed by student activists. If disruption is promised by these groups, administrators respond not by ensuring free speech but by demanding enormous security fees ($28,000 in one case)—thus giving the protestors a “heckler’s veto.”

There have been many more examples of such behaviour in North America over the past few years: speakers have been physically attacked, meetings have been disrupted, comedians charged with hate crimes, and people with divergent points of view on climate, sex, and race “deplatformed” and fired. When a historian reads about such episodes, he gets uneasy.

French revolutionaries who were granted the rights of a free press and unfettered discussion in the new constitution of 1789 were quick to deprive their opponents of those rights whenever their faction came to power. The 1793 Law of Suspects made it illegal to speak harshly of those in authority, to “mislead opinion” or “corrupt the public conscience.” Before long, those radicals were themselves executed for offending the sensibilities of the clique who ousted them.

During the years before the Nazi takeover, politics in Germany was often conducted by intimidation. Rival paramilitaries such as the Nazi Sturmabteilung, the communist Red-Front Fighter’s League, the Steel Helmets, and the Social Democrats’ Reichsbanner made it their business to beat up rival speakers, destroy their printing presses, and prevent the distribution of opposition material. When Hitler came to power in 1933, it didn’t take long for free speech to be abolished altogether.

In communist countries such as Cuba, freedom is seen not as a way to foster open discussion or promote reform; one is free only to do or say what the ruling party deems to be in the interest of the country. In Tibet, a man who attempted to debate an official in a “re-education campaign” was sentence to three years of “re-education through labour.” Laotian communist officials arrested a young environmental activist who used Facebook to ask for help for flood victims. This contradicted the government line that all was well, and she was sentenced to five years imprisonment for spreading “anti-state propaganda.”

China forbids the discussion of events that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and regulates the internet to ensure this happens, but that is the least of that country’s sins against freedom: their laogai slave-labour camps are full of political dissidents, and those who called for religious liberty.

Censorship in countries like Canada is most often used as a weapon by those who claim to be victims—the cry-bully effect. Some racial or sexual minorities and their defenders accuse their opponents of fostering “hate” and since no decent person can support hatefulness, this technique paints their opponents as bigots whose views may be ignored or misrepresented by the media. Pressure groups demand that university campuses be “safe spaces” where they can be free from opinions which offend them.

Free speech is not just an abstract right—it is the way that a healthy society works out its problems. Information is power and we should not encourage its suppression by corporations, politicians, pressure groups, or people who claim to be made “uncomfortable.” As Nadine Strossen of the American Civil Liberties Union has shown in “HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship,” legislating against dissident opinions is ineffective at best and often counterproductive.

Controversial or minority ideas do not disappear simply because they are suppressed by bullies, mobs of the ultra-righteous, or government diktats, and a country that permits the silencing of diversity loses its claim to being a democracy.

Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.