In some ways, Canada has much less freedom of speech than we have in the United States. Specifically, someone can be fined, told to apologize, and prohibited from speaking on the subject again if he engages in certain kinds of speech that offends certain people. Given what's happening on American college campuses, many of which are quite hostile to free speech, think of Canada as a giant college campus.
But last week, an Alberta judge ruled against the Alberta Human Rights Panel, which had tried to fine and silence Stephen Boisson. Boisson had written a nasty letter critical of homosexuality. The judge, Earl Wilson, didn't overturn the law that violates free speech: he didn't have that power. But he did insist on due process and did find that the Human Rights Panel, ironically, given its name, had run roughshod over Boisson's rights.
Why do I find this so hopeful? Two reasons. The obvious one is that one of the main ways governments destroy freedom is that they destroy due process, whether it be by imprisoning people in Guantanamo who have not clearly made war on Americans but who have been simply captured for a bounty, or, in this case by having one person, Lori Andreachuk, do a shoddy job of collecting evidence with the apparent goal of suppressing Boisson's speech.
But my second reason is the reaction of at least some people in the gay community. Here's the headline on the relevant news story/editorial in the gay publication, Xtra:
Free speech triumphs as anti-gay letter ruled legal
And here's a segment from the story:
Gays also stand to benefit from yesterday's court decision. As we continue to face censorship -- whether it be at the Canadian border or on major TV networks -- it's in our interest to promote free speech and expression. Censoring homophobes is an easy way to shut them up, but it does little to address the outrageousness of their arguments. Speech should be fought with speech.
In 2005, queer lobby group Egale argued that open debate, rather than censorship, is the best way to address homophobia. "We believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant," said then-Egale executive director Gilles Marchildon.
Xtra's publisher Pink Triangle Press also opposed Lund's case in editorials. From a 2007 opinion piece by columnist Brenda Cossman:
"Boissoin's views are appalling but censoring them isn't the answer. Holding them up to the light of day is admittedly more time consuming, but in the long run, much more effective. And who said that democracy wasn't supposed to be exhausting."
I've long thought that one of the most effective ways to fight government attacks on freedom is to defend the rights of others even when our own rights in the particular fight are not directly at stake. As I wrote in the second last sentence of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:
Let's speak out when our freedom is violated and, even better, let's do the same when the freedom of others is violated.