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Soldiers of expression: Hate speech, censorship & ethics

What are reasonable limits on freedom of expression? Western Standard contributor Jesse Kline explores the breadth and depth of our freedom to speak our mind, and publish our opinions.

Jesse Kline - July 5, 2010

After going home for Christmas to visit with friends and family, I found myself confronting my second semester of journalism school. This semester, we were expected to participate in a blogging assignment. Two posts a week on a specific topic. I was excited that I finally had a chance to stop pretending to be objective and start writing what was really on my mind.

The big problem was deciding on a topic, as I preferred to write about whatever made me angry on any given day. One of my friends came to me with a great solution to this dilemma: write about the trials and tribulations of being a student with right-of-centre political views in a predominantly left-wing university.

My first post was on the war in Gaza and the problems I had with students and pundits who claimed that Israel was using a disproportionate amount of force. "If Israel sent in missiles without aiming, would that be proportional? If Israel deliberately fired upon civilian, rather than military targets, would that be proportional? Because that is exactly how Hamas has been terrorizing the innocent people living in Southern Israel.… Of course, I would not expect information such as how Israeli hospitals are treating injured Palestinians, while Palestinian hospitals are allowing Hamas agents to shoot injured prisoners in their hospital beds, to be disseminated in a lefty institution like a Canadian university," I wrote.

Before I was able to publish the piece, I was pulled into my professor's office and told that my writing was unacceptable; that I was unqualified to write on the war in Gaza because I am not a international relations expert and I've never served with the Israeli army. He also said that the piece was too opinionated and that I would have to provide proof of everything I said, including my assertion that Hamas is a terrorist organization, even though it is listed as such by both the American and Canadian governments.

I initially gave my professor the benefit of the doubt and switched my topic. After receiving feedback on my next post, I asked for examples of best practises and was sent to a blog post written by one of my classmates. She also wrote about the war in Gaza, but she was on the opposite side of the issue, claiming that Israel was using disproportionate force and that the Canadian government was wrong not to condemn it. It quickly became apparent to me that my previous post had been censored, not for any of the reasons I was given, but because my political opinions conflicted with those of my professor.

Having ones work censored by a professor is just one of the ways free speech can be curtailed. Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig outlines four ways in which freedom can be restricted. These include laws, norms, the market, and the architecture of the physical world. There are numerous ways in which these four modalities can limit our freedom of expression.

For example, when a guy at a bar told my mother a racist joke, she lectured him on why racism is wrong. Likewise, when left-wing journalist Heather Mallick wrote a column saying it was "embarrassing to be Canadian" because of the Conservative government's environmental policies, Charles Adler ridiculed her on his nationally syndicated talk radio show, even offering her money to emigrate to a nice communist country like Cuba or North Korea. These are examples of how norms can be used to put pressure on people to watch what they say.

The market puts another constraint on free speech. When President Bush gave a talk in Calgary, tickets reportedly sold for $400 per person, ensuring that many people could not afford to hear what he had to say. Likewise, if I write a column for my blog, less people will read it than if I was being paid to write it by a national newspaper. Similarly, aspects of the physical world can prevent us from being heard. For example, my blog post would receive a much smaller audience if I walked out of the house and started reading it, rather than posting it on the Internet. I might also be prevented from hearing someone speak, if they were 1,000 kilometres away, rather than right down the street. These are examples of how architecture can limit our ability to be heard.

More articles by Jesse Kline