Monday, 19 January 2015

Freedom of speech is not an absolute right

Deep in my filing cabinet is a thick file from more than thirty years ago. It tells the story of a time in New Brunswick when a public school teacher and a self-identified Christian, made some remarks in a newspaper interview denying the Holocaust ever happened.

               The interview made a lot of headlines locally and nationally. There were howls of outrage that a teacher should say such things. There were equally loud expressions of horror that the newspaper would even consider printing such words.

               A colleague and I were asked to respond on behalf of the United Church of Canada and we did. We said to the media that the person speaking did not speak for all Christians and that the person’s opinion did not reflect the Christian faith as it was understood by The United Church of Canada.

               Other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church also made similar public statements.

               The response was startling. I received letters from across Canada in support of the church’s position. Several were from Rabbis and organizations active in fighting anti-Semitism.

               I also received several pieces of what could only be called hate mail from various neo-Nazi groups.

               I recalled these deeply personal events last week when I heard the news of the attack on the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris.

               Charlie Hebdo published and continues to publish cartoons ridiculing all religions and especially Islam.

               Many were quick to rush to defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish as an example of freedom of speech; a universal human right guaranteed by many national constitutions, declarations of rights and freedoms and international treaties.

               But is freedom of speech absolute?

               I don’t believe so.

               Canadian laws and courts have understood freedom of speech as being a balance between rights and responsibilities. While one can speak freely, people are restricted by laws against libel and slander and in Canada, hate speech. In other words, with freedom of speech comes responsibility.

               So does Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons poking ridicule at religion reflect freedom of speech or does it cross the line into being offensive and possibly hate speech?

               In a press conference last week Pope Francis made some interesting comments. While agreeing that religious freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights, he went on to say, "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith."

               "There is a limit," he said. "Every religion has its dignity."

               I think Pope Francis is right.

               That does not mean that religious faith should be above being questioned or held accountable for its action. But ridicule for the sake of ridicule is simply not appropriate. The caricatures of Charlie Hebdo and others are disrespectful and do not build bridges among people.

               I don’t have to accept the tenets of a particular religious faith to have a respect for that faith.

               With freedom of speech comes responsibility. If we have respect or love for our neighbours, as the Gospels say, then we consider the serious impact of our actions.

               I applaud the media which have chosen not to reprint cartoons and words offensive to religious faiths. It’s the responsible, moral and ethical thing to do.


Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.