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The Case for Free Speech

by Archives April 7, 2009

Journalist H.L Mencken once famously said, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels.” It is worth keeping this in mind when considering the recent government ban on British MP George Galloway. The ban is yet another proof that attempting to censor opinion is both impossible and self-defeating.
In a sense it’s difficult to have too much sympathy for Galloway. His political philosophy essentially amounts to embracing anyone who is opposed to Israel and the United States. His knee-jerk reactionism lead him to support some of the most brutal governments in the Middle East. For example, he praised Saddam Hussein’s “heroism” in 1994. Despite his self-depiction as a martyr for free speech, he has not been terribly consistent on this count – he opposed right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen’s entry to Britain some years ago, ostensibly for his Holocaust denial – all the while wholeheartedly praising many Middle Eastern governments who go much farther on the Holocaust denial front than Le Pen ever did.
Regardless of whether or not one respects his brand of attention seeking politics, the basic right of free speech ought to apply to him as well. He is no security threat, nor is he inciting racial hatred or violence. The official reason for the ban is that he brought basic humanitarian supplies into Gaza, some of which may have been given to Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization. Bringing in diapers and foodstuffs into a country is hardly grounds for banning him from Canada.
Moreover, it’s also completely counterproductive. The ban has given Galloway more publicity than he ever could have gotten from a speaking tour. The ban itself has been bypassed very easily by Internet feeds to packed halls across the country, including most recently in Montreal. Trying to hold back opinion is a little like trying to hold back water with a sieve. The result has been a minor fiasco for the Conservatives.
The British government did the same thing to another blowhard politician, Dutch MP Geert Wilders, on an arguably flimsier pretext. He had been invited to the country to screen his 15-minute, very amateurishly made anti-Islam film, Fitna by a House of Lords member. The British government detained him at the airport and turned him away for reasons of “national security” reasons. The absurdity of the ban was remarkable, it doesn’t make very much sense to ban a person from showing a film that anybody could find on YouTube in a heartbeat.
At the same time Dutch courts launched ill thought out criminal charges against him. In both cases he gained far more attention and credibility than he deserved. The most recent polls have his fringe party winning the most seats of any Dutch party in a hypothetical election.
In a liberal country like Canada, there will always be debates as to how much dissent should be tolerated, and how extreme an opinion should be tolerated. Reasons of practicality, and basic human rights dictate that the decision should almost always come down on the side of free speech.

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