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New book tackles controversies concerning freedom of speech in Canada

Calgary, AB—A new book, including a chapter by the BCCLA’s Policy Director Micheal Vonn, that aims to promote discussion and careful examination of free speech and the limitations we put on it will be released on October 3, 2012 by the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics and Leadership.

Deal with it! Free Speech, Ethics and the Law in Canada includes essays by civil libertarians, human rights experts, journalists and academics from across the country. The essays probe recent controversies concerning the tension between freedom of expression and anti-discrimination (human rights) laws and broader issues concerning the ethics of offensive speech.

“We hope this book spurs discussion about human rights laws across the country that curb freedom of expression,” says Dan Shapiro, research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation. “Freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy, and it’s too important a value to be taken for granted. The recent controversy over a film that offends some people’s religious sensibilities is just the latest reminder of this fact.”

Deal With It! includes essays on:
• What it means to offend or respect someone;
• Canada’s human rights hate speech regime;
• The political and social philosophy supporting free speech;
• Hate speech and the Rwandan genocide;
• The Danish cartoon controversy and editorial decision-making at Canadian news outlets;
• Media ethics and offensive speech;
• The ways that citizens can encourage respectful discussion of controversial topics without relying on legal restrictions on freedom of expression;
• The mandate and operations of human rights commissions.

Taken as a whole, the book grapples with circumstances where rights conflict, either with each other or with other important considerations, such as public safety, and acknowledges that the need to draw lines intelligently amongst our rights, freedoms and other vital interests will always be with us.

The publication of this collection is motivated by the belief that Canadians need to show greater concern about protection of our liberties and that issues concerning freedom of expression, in particular, are critical at this juncture in Canadian public life.

Deal With It! Is public here >>

• Dan Shapiro (Research Associate, Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership) discusses the complexities around the notion of avoiding offence in his paper “What Does it Mean for Speech to be Offensive?”

• In “Verbal Incivility Must be Permissible,” Alan Borovoy (General Counsel Emeritus, Canadian Civil Liberties Association) argues that “While verbal civility may be desirable, verbal incivility must be permissible. The moral goal to be respectful must be accompanied by the legal right to be disdainful.”

• Noa Mendelsohn Aviv (Director, Equality Program, Canadian Civil Liberties Association) looks at what Canada’s human rights hate speech laws were intended to achieve and how they are working out in actual practice.

• Trudy Govier (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Lethbridge) explains how the concept of respect should figure in ethical reasoning in her paper “Respect and its Dilemmas.”

• Kelly Toughill’s (Director, School of Journalism, University of King’s College) essay, “Letter from Rwanda: Censorship, Journalism and the Legacy of Genocide,” discusses the calls to murder that culminated in the Rwandan genocide and provides a chilling reminder of the power of what we say on the behavior of others when there is no time for contrary messages to be heard.

• Richard Moon (Professor of Law, University of Windsor) discusses section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act dealing with hate speech, but at the same time argues against what he sees as the misinformation that has been directed at human rights commissions. In his view, there is much to worry about in making hate speech illegal under human rights codes, but it does not follow that human rights commissions have no legitimate role to play in the struggle against discrimination.

• Gillian Steward’s (Toronto Star Columnist and Journalism Instructor, Mount Royal University) piece, “To Publish or not to Publish? The Canadian News Media and the Danish Cartoon Controversy,” queries the ethics of and the values underlying the decisions made by various media executives about whether or not to re-publish the Danish cartoons.

• Stephen Meurice (Editor-in-Chief, National Post) offers a working journalist’s perspective on how newsrooms deal with potentially offensive speech in “Is it Possible for the News Media to be Completely Inoffensive?”

• In “Takin’ it to the Streets: Social Justice Needs Room to Move, Micheal Vonn (Policy Director, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association) argues that commitment to freedom of expression must also include the commitment to make it possible – in a very real and on-the-ground way – for ordinary people to have their voices heard in the public square.

• In her piece “Rejecting Hate: Taking Responsibility for Equality in a Free Society,” Nathalie Des Rosiers (General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association) reminds us that “everyone committed to a democratic way of dealing with difference” has an obligation not only to support robust protection for speech but also to “energetically denounce discrimination in all its forms.”

• In “What now for the Ethics of Debate?”, Dan Shapiro addresses how we decide what lies within, and what falls outside, the ethical bounds of public discourse while maintaining a strongly civil libertarian view concerning the legal prohibition of hateful or offensive speech.

• In three appendices, Linda McKay-Panos (Executive Director, Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre) describes how human rights commissions across the country typically exercise their statutory mandates and also enumerates for us the various specific powers governing speech which have been given to human rights commissions across the country.

This collection is a product of a public event held in Toronto in April 2010 organized by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. The publication is aimed at a general readership. It includes new material not presented at that conference such as Gillian Steward’s essay on the Danish cartoon controversy, informational sidebars and excerpts from discussion at the original event.