Not-So-Free Speech: Canadians Beware!

By on March 1, 2006

While FIRE does its work exclusively in the United States, it’s an unfortunate fact that problems with censorship and academic freedom are not limited to our country alone. FIRE actually gets a number of case submissions every year from students and professors at European and Canadian universities with problems just as serious as those we see in America. It’s particularly difficult for us when we see cases submitted from Canada that would be clear violations of the law here in America. One such case is the ongoing struggle over the printing of the Mohammed cartoons at the University of Prince Edward Island. The Canadian Broadcasting Company reports:
The University of Prince Edward Island’s student newspaper has published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have sparked violent protests in other parts of the world.
Two thousand copies of The Cadre were distributed on campus Wednesday, but [the] university administration ordered them removed. Officials say the cartoons have already caused enough violence around the world.
 
The article goes on to report:
[U]niversity president Wade MacLaughlan [sic] says publishing the cartoons is “an invitation to trouble.
 
“We still run the property,” MacLaughlan says, “and we’re not in the business of deliberately inviting people to be insulted to the point of causing an outrage.”
This illustrates the point we have to make whenever we get a case submitted from Canada: Free speech doesn’t mean the same thing in Canada as it does in the U.S. Canada has some free speech guarantees, but while FIRE is no expert on Canadian law, it is certain that the guarantees of free speech are weaker in Canada than in the United States. As an example, consider that the president of UPEI is still publicly defending his decision to censor. Indeed, in a letter posted on the UPEI website, President MacLauchlan crows about the fact that the UPEI Student Union, which had initially supported The Cadre’s press freedom, also voted to censor the newspaper. He writes:
While the Student Union supports the freedom of the press, there is also a sense that with that freedom comes the responsibility to balance freedom and responsibility effectively, a consideration that we feel was not accommodated in this case. While these cartoons were reproduced in The Cadre to inform students of the issues at hand and were in no way meant to inflict any further injury, it is now apparent that we must take into account the overwhelming reaction that these cartoons have caused worldwide and therefore we must react accordingly. It is also to be noted that there is a great deal of sensitivity involved with this contentious issue, a fact personified by the recent outrage and riots that were sparked in direct result of the publication of these cartoons. In consideration of this, in respect to those significantly affected, and for the overall well being of the UPEI community, it is felt that this action was essential. We reaffirm that despite this action, no further insult was ever intended by the publication of these cartoons in The Cadre.
 
We would like to extend apologies to all members of the Islamic community on PEI and across Canada who have, in any way, been detrimentally affected by The Cadre’s original decision to print these cartoons.
President MacLauchlan’s letter is well worth a read because to anyone who values freedom of the press, it is truly one of the creepiest letters imaginable. The tone of the letter is one of self-congratulation for making the “right” call on censoring the paper and of congratulations to the Student Union for changing its mind and eventually coming down in favor of censorship. I can’t resist giving you one more horrendous passage from the letter, this time a quote from the president of the Student Union:
Well it was sort of an evolution of thought yesterday and I am sure everyone can appreciate it was a fairly stressful day in dealing with this situation. First of all it was seen flat out as a freedom of the press, freedom of speech kind of thing but as the day progressed and facts became more apparent we became aware that that wasn’t perhaps the most accurate way of depicting the situation….
Considering that the Student Union president met with President MacLauchlan four times in one day about the issue, one can only imagine what led to this “evolution of thought.”
 
How could this happen? A quick source I found on free speech guarantees in Canada was this page on Reference.com (search for the word “Canada”). Its source is Wikipedia, so it’s important not to take everything it says as the gospel truth, but I see no reason to doubt this entry. It points out that while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does protect freedom of speech, this is subject to the limitation that these rights are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” By way of example, it points to a legal ban on some kinds of “hate speech” in Canada (in the U.S., the First Amendment has no exception for “hate speech”). So to our Canadian readers, especially students, I would say this: be careful. Just because something is all right to print or say in the U.S. doesn’t mean that you won’t be legally punished for it in Canada.