Make Speech Free, and All Else Follows

By David Frum, National Post (Canada)

[..] The great lever to reform anything wrong in state or society is freedom of speech and the press. As Thomas Jefferson warned–and promised–200 years ago:

    “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

Let Canadians have full and secure media freedom, and everything else falls into place.

But full and secure media freedom is exactly what Canadians lack.

In Canada, regulatory authorities ban political and religious speech from the airwaves. It’s not because Canadians are so mild-mannered and averse to controversy that there is no Canadian equivalent of Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. It’s because it’s against the law.

And because the rules governing radio and television speech are so very vague, Canadian broadcasters practise extra self-censorship so as to stay on the safe side of the invisible line. In 2000, for example, Canadian radio stations en masse dropped the Dr. Laura show, hosted by the often-provocative Laura Schlessinger, not because the government ordered it, but because they feared the government might.

Instead of vigorous political debate on the great questions of the day, Canadians are offered on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand discussion of topics carefully chosen for inoffensiveness. (“Coming up on Radio Noon, we’re taking your calls on the new federal office-supply procurement regulations!”)

And the restrictions grow tightest when speech is most needed. During the 1993 election, Kim Campbell got into serious trouble when a reporter misquoted her as saying “An election is no time to discuss serious issues.” Campbell never said those words–but Canada’s election authorities live by them. It is seriously illegal for anyone other than a registered political party or a major media organization to try to make their voices heard at election time in any way that costs money–and making your voice heard almost always costs money.

Even between elections, Canadians must watch what they see. The Western Standard magazine spent thousands of dollars to respond to an Alberta Human Rights Commission investigation of its decision to reprint the Danish Muhammad cartoons–making Canada the only Western country in which the publication of the cartoons was effectively censored.

Broadcasters self-censor, so as to stay on the safe side of the invisible line punished by an agency of the state. European governments sometimes appealed to papers to refrain, but they did not punish those who disobeyed.

And now of course the Western Standard has ceased to publish entirely. Magazines depend on advertising, and advertisers are very sensitive to subtle pressures from governments and regulators.

Where the media are free, all other liberties are safe. Where the media are supervised, inspected and interrogated, all other liberties are circumscribed. Give Canadians this one reform, full freedom of speech and they will fix the rest themselves.

In the interest of fair media commentary, I have a disclosure to make here. I have just signed on as a senior foreign policy advisor to the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign. I serve without pay, and I am in no sense a spokesman for the campaign: My words are my own. Still, readers should be aware, I have a candidate in the 2008 race, and I am working hard to see him elected.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

October 22, 2007 | 3 Comments »

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. David Frum wrote “Let Canadians have full and secure media freedom”.

    He did not DIRECTLY address the existence and mission of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

    Of course much money will be spent to preclude legal difficulties. Potential legal difficulties in the business world typically translate into financial difficulties.

    South of Alberta, we have the MDs practicing the same kind of preventive jurisprudence to protect against law suits. US costs are being transferred to children who will pay additional direct and indirect taxes.

    I thought David Frum was an attorney.

    Kol tuv,

  2. Noooo actually u r wrong frummy! I HATE MUSLIMS! tHEY CALL MY PEOPLE PIGS AND MONKEYS!I have EVERY righteig under stupid Canadian law to say what I want to!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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