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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Intellectual freedom in Canada: Opposing the moral basis for a backward society

As I slowly work my way back to regular posting, following a relative's illness, I thank all for patience. I sometimes take a few days to catch up with paying work and errands.

Most blogging is a volunteer activity, aimed at telling you news you often won't hear in legacy media. Please be patient, and thanks to all generous PayPal donors.

Some readers have wondered why I deked into the "free speech" question in Canada, instead of simply maintaining an independent news desk in the intelligent design controversy.

Well, basically, friends were in trouble or worried about getting into trouble with an increasingly illiberal and anti-civil rights establishment in Canada, aimed at shutting down dissent against government policies. So I actually didn't have much of a choice, if you assume that turning your back on your friends is not a choice.

Yes, intellectual freedom matters to everyone. When a public grows unused to hearing anything that challenges convention, it begins to assume that whatever does challenge convention must be "wrong." It needn't be wrong on a factual or logical basis; it is wrong merely because it challenges convention!

That wouldn't matter so much, I suppose, if the challenge to convention is merely a drunk spouting swear words on a street corner. But what if the challenge is new ideas that people should think about? Organized wrong-doing by people from whom we would least expect such behaviour?

The huge growth, in my lifetime, of censorious "human rights" organizations that supposedly protect people from being "offended" forms a moral basis for a backward society.

Fortunately, I am proud to report that many are fighting back here in Canada. Regular readers will recall my post on columnist Mark Steyn's testimony at the Ontario legislature (February 9, 2009). But much has happened since then, and here are a few updates:

The libel dispute between the Ottawa Citizen and former Ontario police officer Danno Cusson - who had gone to Ground Zero to help out - has been appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Why does this matter? Because under Canadian law, it has never been entirely clear whether the public interest is a defense against a libel suit. As Kirk Makin recounts in The Globe and Mail (February 18, 2009),
Mr. Dearden said that the case under appeal - in which former Ontario Provincial Police constable Danno Cusson won a $125,000 jury award - is a classic instance. He said that The Citizen lost despite having substantial evidence that Mr. Cusson and his pet dog hindered search efforts at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

"In my submission, that is not only chilling, but frightening," Mr. Dearden said. "What is an editor supposed to do? The public benefits from a vigorous press that performs its watchdog and bloodhound role."

Mr. Dearden and lawyers for many other newspaper and broadcasting organizations - including The Globe and Mail - urged the court to fashion a new defence against defamation, based on whether the subject matter of a report is in the public interest and whether a journalist took responsible steps to gather information.
The difficulty, as any journalist will realize, is that one may not know what will later turn out to be true.

Suppose I say that there is no current evidence of life of Mars, and some company, investing in life on Mars, loses money thereby. And I turn out to be wrong. Can they sue me?

In my view, it should be sufficient for me to demonstrate that I relied on responsible reports. Any other regime simply becomes a hindrance to disseminating information, by assigning unreasonable standards of evidence. The Canadian Press reports here and Don Butler reports for CanWest here. Here's Tonda MacCharles for the Toronto Star:

It's nice to see the legacy media waking up to some of these issues instead of continuing to sleepwalk over a cliff ...

Hat tip to Franklin Carter of the Book and Periodical Council of Canada, who reminds me that Freedom to Read Week begins on February 22.

Franklin also offers several interesting quotations:
Newspapers are born free, and everywhere they are in chains.

- Francis R. Scott (1973)

[Yes but, in my view, many of those chains are self-forged. It shouldn't have taken the newspapers nearly as long as it did to recognize current threats. But well, there is no time like the present. In fact, come to think of it, there is no time other than the present, so it is nice to see them wakey wakey. Yes, we do have a problem, folks ... Now get with the program!]
Two things must be said about knowledge deniers. Their rationale is always political. And more often than not, they hold in their hand a sacred text for certification.

- E. L. Doctorow (2007)

[Intersting, E.L., but increasingly these days not quite accurate. Many deniers of knowledge do not have a sacred text but a standard victimology line. For example, "I am a victim of ABC and I have a right to demand that you believe XYZ, and anyone who says they don't believe it is denying my rights by offending me." People who can get away with that stuff need not bother writing a sacred text. ]
If we ban whatever offends any group in our diverse society, we will soon have no art, no culture, no humour, no satire. Satire is by its nature offensive. So is much art and political discourse. The value of these expressions far outweighs their risk.

- Erica Jong (1995)

[Fair enough, Erica, but the risk is not usually evenly distributed. For example, as Mark Steyn pointed out at the Ontario legislature, the Knights of Columbus, a Christian group, was fined for backing out of hosting a lesbian wedding, but, he asks, would the lesbians even have tried to hold their wedding at a mosque? One key reason for getting rid of "offendedness" legislation is precisely to make society more fair.

Here's Steyn on that kind of thing, out in the hall after the hearing:

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