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Culture May 23, 2019 5:54 PM EST

The digital charter and the death of free speech in Canada

Whenever a government claims to be the protector against “disinformation,” it quite obviously means the information they may not like.

The digital charter and the death of free speech in Canada
Shane Miller Montreal, QC

This article was published more than 1 year ago, information might not be up to date.

Two years ago, I attended a cousin’s wedding and stayed at a hotel in Long Island, New York. One morning, I started a conversation with one of the employees. Once I told them I was Canadian, the discussion focused on our leaders. Much to my annoyance, they couldn’t shield how envious they were of Canadians who have the inimitable Justin Trudeau for Prime Minister. His youthful buoyancy and sophistication was irresistible, they said. I quietly scoffed at their judgments, but I let Trudeau’s admirer have their day.

Until the scandals, Trudeau’s reputation, for the most part, appeared unblemished. This is a testament, no doubt, to his efforts to preserve his image as a paragon of civility and tolerance. He has carefully comported himself to sustain such a beautifully constructed facade. Of course, this image has always been at odds with reality as he has provided Canadians with endless reasons to abominate him. At New York University, he delivered a commencement address wherein he panegyrized the virtues of peaceful co-existence and tolerance of ideological differences.

Regarding political opponents, he enjoined the Class of 2018 to “listen to them, truly listen, and try to understand them, and find that common ground.” This character is at variance with the man who in the House of Commons has denigrated business owners that don’t conform to his worldview or calledcitizens “racist” who have the temerity to question his policies.  One wishes that the decorum about which he preaches elsewhere were noticeable in his actions.

But it is an excellent way to contrast himself against Trump, who is an apoplectic egomaniac who has a penchant for self-flattery and demagogy. In his rhetoric, at least, Donald doesn’t demonstrate much deference to the constitutional niceties regarding free speech and executive power. If it weren’t for such a robust American Constitution, perhaps he would act upon ambitions to do away with the free press. Luckily, for Americans, the First Amendment remains intact, and they enjoy absolute speech rights that won’t be infringed any time soon.  After all, Donald is incapable of doing anything because the Constitution contains him, as it should. But yet, some are still paralyzed by anxiety over the prospect of Trumpian fascism.

In spite of all his virtue signalling in response to Trump’s antics, Trudeau doesn’t seem to like certain opinions or “Fake News,” either. The difference is that our misguided understanding of free speech enables him to do something about it.

Which brings us to a new zenith in Trudeau censorship with the Digital Charter.In an admonitory speech, Trudeau claimed that social media platforms “must be held accountable for the hate speech and disinformation we see online,” and threatened “meaningful financial consequences” if they don’t step up.

In a free society, this should be considered disgraceful, given the open hostility to free speech and the insistence that the government should determine what ideas one consumes. And like similar initiatives, it is infuriatingly vague and rife with doublespeak.

For example, principle 9of this glorious Charter states that “Canadians can expect that digital platforms will not foster, or disseminate hate or violent extremism.” And principle 10claims that there will be “penalties for violations of the laws” that “support these principles.” But of course, more government control over what you can read and watch will actually “defend freedom of expression online.”

Whenever a government claims to be the protector against “disinformation,” it quite obviously means the information they may not like. This is also the case with hate speech. Who is the all-knowing moral arbiter who gets to define it? That’s the problem with these manipulative terms—without any clear definition, those who are in the position to wield them have the luxury to define them however they see fit.

The entire concept of “hate speech” perturbs free speech absolutists because it’s simply subjective. There is certainly speech that is hateful in nature, but what is usually considered to be beyond the pale by some is entirely based on their own prejudices. Besides, we’ve already devised libel/incitement laws to deal with speech that objectively threatens someone’s safety and wellbeing.

I find Communists nonsensical, just as they find my reverence for capitalism revolting, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to silence or hurt each other. As Petersonand others have said repeatedly, free speech isn’t just another value; it’s a mechanism to help us establish truths, and for a dogmatist, the truth is sometimes inconvenient.

Indeed, “hate speech” is only in the eyes of the beholder. The beholder can be, at best, ineffective, and at worst, nefarious. In Trudeau’s case, it’s both. The former because his compassionate disposition compels him to pursue anti-speech initiatives, which he and his cabinet can never explain because they’re based upon nothing but emotional platitudes. The latter because these initiatives are a reliable measure whereby he can ensure those who deviate on issues like diversity or immigration don’t have as much influence on public opinion.

As always, the Charter should be met with recalcitrance. For such overreach is to be expected from the magnificent Justin, whose government is a perfect parable of how one man’s hubris makes for some shoddy and deleterious policy.

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