Joey Coleman: Free Speech is Important, It's The Life Blood of Democracy

Free Speech is Important, It's The Life Blood of Democracy

I consider the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to be one of the greatest constitutional statements in organized human society.

It's simplicity and strength are the life blood that gives all other freedoms promised by the American Constitution meaning.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It's not perfect, and frankly with the raise of white nationalism in the US it seems flawed.

I've been thinking much in the past few months about my views on free speech, because of my strong views in favour of civil liberties, even including supporting the right of people to be offensive.

In Canada, we don't have free speech, we have mostly free expression, in that speech can be limited by government.

Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, must like the original 1867 British North America Act, is a response to the perceived extremes of the American Republic, an attempt to have democratic freedoms without the civil wars that have plagued our American cousins over the centuries.

As we look across the border right now at the civil strife and crisis in their Republic from the rise of white supremacists; it's easy to believe that the suppression of hate is a benefit of our limited free expression rights in Canada.

Does the suppression of hate speech serve to protect society?

No, I agree with the American Civil Liberties Union's position paper on this:

The ACLU has often been at the center of controversy for defending the free speech rights of groups that spew hate, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. But if only popular ideas were protected, we wouldn't need a First Amendment. History teaches that the first target of government repression is never the last. If we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one's liberty will be secure. In that sense, all First Amendment rights are "indivisible."

Censoring so-called hate speech also runs counter to the long-term interests of the most frequent victims of hate: racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. We should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them. As one federal judge has put it, tolerating hateful speech is "the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in this country."

At the same time, freedom of speech does not prevent punishing conduct that intimidates, harasses, or threatens another person, even if words are used. Threatening phone calls, for example, are not constitutionally protected.

Simply put, once we give the state the ability to suppress hate speech, we give government the ability to suppress unpopular speech.

As a journalist, I rely upon my ability to express ideas unpopular and unwanted by the government. Free speech is key to my work; it's messy, but it's better than the alternative.

Without free speech, we will lose democracy.