From the Desk of Avi Benlolo: The Inconvenient Truth About Free Speech

June 7, 2019


On this 75th anniversary of D-Day, all roads still lead back to Nazi Germany

Like John Robson, I testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on the matter of online hate. My argument rested on the premise that laws against hate speech are a priority in our country. We must control the spread of antisemitism, hate and intolerance.  

As Robson correctly conceded in his recent National Post opinion piece, we limit speech as a society every day: "the state rightly restricts speech to protect us from force and fraud, prohibiting conspiracy to commit crimes, libel and slander, incitement to violence, or material misrepresentation."

Regulation of speech also happens on parliamentary committees – even ones studying the question of regulation of speech. Coincidentally, I stood witness at the very same justice committee hearing where MP Michael Cooper made his remarks in response to the testimony of a Muslim community leader. The committee appeared to act correctly and instantly rebuked the minister, calling for his statement to be struck from the record, and this was eventually followed by his apology and removal from the committee.

So, government regulates its own speech and that of fellow members. We regulate our own speech and behaviour every day in business and interpersonal interaction. Why then is it out of bounds to regulate, say, teachers who want to venerate Hitler? Or writers who call for the murder of Jews? Or activists who rally on city streets calling for the genocide of Israel – as happens each year at Al Quds Day?

Let’s be honest, academics have long philosophized about the merits of free speech. They romanticize that open debate exposes haters, drives them underground and in the end, truth prevails. On this, Robson says, "it is that in the battle of ideas truth will prevail, and that preventing the airing of ideas undermines truth and decency." There is truth to this of course and we cannot be absolutists. There is room for respectful debate and education, without harming or victimizing others.

But upon reflection of historical facts and genocides, including the Holocaust and Rwanda, where direct measurable incitement resulted in murder, this ivory tower mode of thinking is disproven time and again in the real world. In fact, Canada extradited Leon Mugesera back to Rwanda several years ago exactly for and because of allegations of incitement of that genocide. An academic, he was accused of calling Tutsi minorities in that country "cockroaches." Words can and do translate to violence.

As we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, it was made clear again this week that all roads lead back to the lessons of the Second World War. One of the most advanced and enlightened pre-World War Two nations (and today), Germany was quickly turned into a genocidal regime because Adolf Hitler and his henchmen were given forum after forum to spew their venom in open society. The "sunlight destroys evil" theorem failed to win the day. Had the Nazis been marginalized and regulated to their own dark corners – labeled persona non grata by the state – nearly 10 million victims of the Holocaust might have been saved. That’s a fact.

If history repeats as is often stated, the lesson of the Holocaust must forever stand. Simply put, hate speech cannot be left open to the marketplace of ideas. One can quote all the academics one wants to prove a point – but let’s face the truth once and for all: the open marketplace of ideas has been nasty to Jewish communities throughout history. We have been raped, pillaged and murdered from time immemorial incited by myths and conspiracy theories that motivate populations to act violently.

This is the real world – not an academic treatise on liberty. In the real world, there is measurable evidence demonstrating that hate speech leads to violence. Worse, when left unchecked, hate speech inevitably turns to hate crime. And while we support free speech, we also believe humans have demonstrated throughout time and history that they require limitations to curtail tribal behaviour against the weak. This is the inconvenient truth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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