The US is hardly the only democracy in the world that seeks to limit the power of government, but we do have one thing that many of our fellow western democracies do not have – the first amendment. To the American mind, it’s bracing to read about the existence of “human rights commissions” in nations like Canada. The laws which establish such commissions generally establish protected groups that may not be insulted in any way, and the list of protected groups is rather broad. The Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, for instance, says that:
no person shall publish . . . any statement that . . . is likely to expose a person or a class of persons to . . . contempt because of the race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income or family status of that person or class of persons.
In Canada, the Supreme Court has even ruled that, unlike in a libel or slander case, the truth is no defense. Even true statements that the court deems likely to cause some injury to a protected group may be punished. And it even reaches into private communications, as the case of John Ross Taylor shows. Taylor was conviced of anti-semitism (and he genuinely was an anti-semite) and ordered to stop recording his opinions or even communicating them by telephone. He refused to abide by that order and was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of court. In my book, that makes Taylor, no matter how much I might despise his opinions, a political prisoner.
Canada is not alone. In Italy, a journalist named Oriana Fallaci is about to stand trial. Her crime? Insulting Islam. Her book, The Force of Reason, argues that the Muslims are taking over Europe and must be stopped. It’s not a thesis I’m likely to agree with. But it’s entirely within her rights to make the argument, and if you think she’s wrong, you use your own free speech to counter her views. But not in Italy, apparently. A judge has ordered prosecutors to charge her for making statements “unequivocally offensive to Islam”. In France, a trial was held to determine whether to ban her book from being sold there; the court thankfully ruled that it could not be banned. But trials such as these are unheard of in the US, where even classified documents can be published in the newspapers under the Pentagon Papers case.
The double edged sword of allowing the government the power to punish ideas deemed to be insulting to a group is demonstrated perfectly in this case. The head of the Muslim Union of Italy, Adel Smith, who filed the suit to punish Fallaci for insulting Islam was himself sued under the same statute for “offending the Catholic religion, through the use of scorn.” Such perfect irony. Give to government the authority to punish the views of those you oppose and you will soon find that power turned on your views as well.
Hat tip to Bartholemew.