First, the landscape has changed. Demands for censorship that used to be opposed by universities are now coming from universities. As American commentator Derek Hunter explains,

The idea of punishing speech arbitrarily deemed inappropriate is something that is not only the antithesis of one of this country’s founding principles, it was something colleges were supposed to be safe from. Encroachment on something so sacred as freedom of speech would’ve have sent students to the street just a generation ago; now they march to demand censorship.

Yes indeed. In fact, as he recounts:

The progressive all-women’s Mount Holyoke College cancelled its annual performance of The Vagina Monologs” because students worried it could alienate transgendered students. …

No, seriously. If everyone is a victim, then everyone is potentially a perp. A key basis of totalitarian government is that everyone is already guilty. I wouldn’t watch Vagina Monologs, but it troubles me that it was cancelled because someone might supposedly be alienated. Weren’t lots of people alienated by early leftist plays?

Hunter hopes people will come to their senses, but in an age of “hate speech,” trigger warnings, and microaggressions, what senses are they to come to anyway?

No one dare say what needs saying: Dating back to the time of Plato, people who cannot deal with other people’s challenging ideas should not be at a university anyway. Any more than a person who can’t stand the sight of blood should work in an emergency room.

My fellow Canadian Mark Steyn noted in 2009,

Since my difficulties with the “human rights” thought police began, I’ve been struck by how many Canadians (and Europeans) sincerely believe that a better world can be built by giving the state the exclusive power to “ban hate” and enforce niceness. Such a world will by definition be totalitarian.

Yes. Take Quebec, a (reluctant) province of Canada. During a recent election cycle, the governing party was floating a new law:

Could wearing a cross become a crime in Canada? Or a firing offense? In late August, a Montreal newspaper leaked details of a proposed secularist charter for the Canadian province of Quebec. Officially unveiled Sept. 10, the Charter of Quebec Values claims an “obligation to remain independent of religious authority.” … Included is a ban on public sector employees — civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, judges, police, day care staff, municipal and university staff — wearing a hijab, turban, kippa, large visible crucifix or any other “ostentatious” religious symbols at work.

Only people who belong to the Religion of Shopping would be safe. Fortunately, that party didn’t get re-elected. But how did “offending” some (unknown, unstated) person, irrelevant to the delivery of services, become so important, so costly? Principally, I suspect, because of its current dominance in the academy.

Quebec was the only Canadian province in which newspapers actually published a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed*. But it is now flirting again with anti-“hate-speech” laws:

The criminal “wilful promotion of hatred” requires extreme language against an “identifiable group.” Charges are rarely laid and convictions are scarce. So, the commission would like to make it a civil offence to “expose someone to hatred” on illegal grounds of discrimination. These include gender, language, ethnic origin, race, religion and political convictions.

In Canada as a whole, in 2012, Parliament abolished the power to hear complaints about “hate speech,” as opposed to harm or threat of harm.

As Quebec columnist Yves Boisvert recounts, a Canadian Supreme Court justice had written in 2008 that

… the law must accommodate commentators such as the satirist or the cartoonist who seizes on a point of view, which may be quite peripheral to the public debate, and blows it into an outlandish caricature for public edification or merriment. Their function is not so much to advance public debate as it is to exercise a democratic right to poke fun at those who huff and puff in the public arena. This is well understood by the public to be their function.

In other words, we should not expect the government or approved media outlets to do all our thinking for us. If we needed that, we would not need representative or democratic government.

Some Canadian commentators argue—and I agree with them—that, in the age of the Internet, the time is long past to abandon hate speech laws altogether. As Canadian philosopher Mark Mercer writes,

How many times was Charlie Hebdo investigated for violating France’s laws against the expression of hate? At least twice, and both times acquitted. What’s left to do but attack it yourself?

If, on the other hand, Canadians were truly to embrace freedom of expression, and get rid of our laws that censor or suppress expression, we would thereby say to the world that being mocked or ridiculed or subjected to expressions of hate is not to suffer an injustice. That you have been insulted, offended, or upset by something someone said does not make you a victim, and you are not entitled to restitution or compensation.

As I put the matter, in a note to a Canadian free speech warrior the other day, picture two people:

According to his religion, she is going to hell. According to her religion, he is. He hates her; she hates him.

If we try to make a law against “hate,” we will end up favouring the side whose hell we prefer. It always happens that way.

And as a free speech journalist, I could end up in the minority. In the United States, for example, one hears that

One-Third of Americans – and 51 Percent of Democrats – Favor Hate Speech Laws

I will not be surprised if the Charlie Hebdo massacre has the effect of increasing support for hate-speech laws in the United States (as Jacob Sullum has noted, hate-speech laws are already in place in France and most if not all European countries). Many Americans who don’t particularly care about freedom of speech may look on the carnage and conclude it makes sense to avoid such scenes by stifling expression. Social Justice Warrior types will take another long look at Jeremy Waldron’s 2012 book, The Harm in Hate Speech, and gussy up their interest in controlling thought and social interactions with philosophical language and social-scientific “rigor.”

I hope that those Americans come to realize that they do not know what they are talking about, and thus think again. The Canadian experience was that we could not have a serious conversation about responsible religious freedom when everything depended on not offending someone or other. That is why we got rid of the law. 

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

* This may have related in part to the fact that you would need to read French fluently to exactly “get it”

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...