Free speech advocates: this is not the droid you’re looking for

I am in something of an unusual position, being an outspoken crusader both for human rights and for free speech. It crops up in my discussions of hate speech as a free speech issue again and again. The reason why I say my position is somewhat unique is that usually those who defend absolute speech rights ally themselves on the side of anti-gay, racist and/or sexist bigots. Their position tends to be “I shouldn’t be punished for saying hateful things.” My position is a bit more nuanced – I think that the definition of ‘hate’ is imprecise, and that while we should take note of it, it is far too tempting for the state to abuse the power to criminalize unpopular speech.

A recent court case has free speech advocates salivating like starving wolves in front of a fresh kill:

A comedian who was fined by the BC Human Rights Tribunal after a confrontation with a lesbian couple at a Vancouver restaurant is appealing the decision, arguing the province’s human rights legislation shouldn’t apply to stand-up comics. The tribunal ruled in favour of Lorna Pardy, a gay woman who testified that Guy Earle shouted gay slurs and other insults at her and her girlfriend from both on and off the stage during a comedy show in 2007. Earle and the restaurant were ordered to pay a total of $22,500 in compensation.

Human Rights Tribunals are the bane of the bigoted set. They are intended to find a way to balance respect for human rights with civil liberties, and are empowered to levy fines against people found guilty of discriminating, propagating hatred, or otherwise violating people’s charter rights in ways that aren’t expressly criminal. While they are an imperfect tool, they represent an attempt to uphold the rights of individuals to live free of persecution and hatred.

The reason why my fellow unrestricted speech advocates are so hot about this particular case is because on the surface, it reads like the story of a comedian who made some off-colour comments about lesbians in the context of a comedy performance, and who was subsequently brought up on charges by some overly-sensitive bleeding heart liberal lesbos in the audience who can’t take a joke. ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ has been the cry. ‘How can we allow these Tribunals to bulldoze over the rights of performers to make jokes? Can we only tell knock-knock jokes from now on?’

Hey guys, ‘Knock, knock”

Who’s there?

A maniac that went on a hatred-fueled tirade against two women in the audience that went well beyond the boundaries of his act. A maniac that went on to bodily assault those women when they tried to stand up for themselves. A maniac that completely lost his cool and continued to berate them after his stage show had finished.

Yeah, not so funny a joke now, is it?

If the case had merely been an echo of Michael Richards’ racist tirade against black people, or Tracey Morgan’s recent statement where he said he would stab his son to death if he (the son) came out as gay, then I’d be decrying this decision right along with the rest of my fellow speech defenders. This isn’t that, though. This is the case of a guy who wasn’t content to simply humiliate a pair of women who he claimed were heckling him (this is disputed by the women, who say he began harassing them for the arch-crime of kissing each other), but went on a rampage against them even after he was off stage.

My fellow speechies are holding Mr. Earle up as an example of the overreach of the Tribunal process, but if anything it shows that there are times where clearly some kind of intervention is needed. What occurred at the restaurant was far beyond what one would consider reasonable fare for a comedy show, where the abuse begins and ends on stage. Guy Earle is not the victim of an oversensitive system that bends to every errant whine from a minority group – he’s the perpetrator of a shocking and unacceptable verbal assault that crossed the line from joke to serious when he put down the microphone.

I am not sure what mental deficiency it is that makes my colleagues unable to understand nuance and irony, but it has them hitching their wagon to a horse that isn’t so much dead as it is running in the opposite direction they want to go. If the battle is indeed to bring the free speech argument into the public consciousness – to sell the idea of unrestricted free speech rights to the marketplace of ideas then they’ve picked a real stinker of a human being to make their/our case on.

That being said, if this were a simple free speech issue, I’d side with Mr. Earle in a heartbeat, no matter how despicable a human being I might think he is. What he said on stage may have been defensible speech, but the extent to which he allowed it to go is indefensible conduct. Speech, no matter how hateful, is crucial to the conduct of our society – parasites like Guy Earle undermine the very idea of free speech.

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  1. Curt says

    This is becoming a seriously hot button issue lately. I think you will be very interested in this case;
    The basics are that an American man with electronic copies of manga comics allegedly depicting illustrated sexual acts involving children crossed into Canada and was arrested under the Canadian anti child pornography laws.

    In this case and like many others, I think the black and white line of for/against free-speech can be easily obliterated by the grey area that it actually is. One of my favourite online comic creators made this scathing condemnation of the legal fund being set up and expressed his clear opinion in the blog post underneath. ( He is getting some serious heat for it too. The major arguement seems to be, who chooses what is okay to censor and what isn’t? Thats a tricky issue indeed but even the most liberal view point should be able to agree that there isn’t anything redeemable or artistic about children being depicted in sexual acts in any way, shape or form.

    Personally, I tend to agree with the old saying (can’t remember who said it originally), “I’m against any Bill of Human Rights, unless it comes along with a Bill of Human Responsibility.” I see Canada’s Human Rights Tribunals as the vanguard of that Responsibility and though I curse them every time they let a religious nutter get away with utter silliness I firmly respect them and the work they do and applaud them every time they charge a person who has shown that they have not managed to obtain the maturity, clarity of thought or responsibility to wield their freedoms.

    I’m far more pragmatic than most all-or-nothing free-speech advocates, I would happily lock-up the entire Westborough baptist church for their hate crimes…I sure as hell wouldn’t die for their right to spread that hate.

  2. grassrute says

    Your assertion that this is more than a free speech issue is based on the premise that the Tribunal’s decision came after a fair and balanced trial. How can we come to the conclusion that Earle is “a maniac that completely lost his cool and continued to berate them after his stage show has finished.” This conclusion is based soley on the complainant’s testimony. As for Earle’s testimony “Earle did not appear at the hearings because the tribunal wouldn’t allow him to testify over the telephone.” I had to go to the actual BCHRT and check it out. Sure enough:

    “Mr. Earle, though a party to the complaint, did not testify. Zoe Broomsgrove, Ms.Pardy’s partner at the time the complaint arose, and a customer of Zesty’s at that time, did not testify. I am satisfied that I have sufficient direct evidence from those who testified to determine the facts. Accordingly, I do not have to consider whether to draw adverse inferences from the failure of either Mr. Earle or Ms. Broomsgrove to testify.”

    One witness, referring to Pardy, testified “She said she wanted to break her beer bottle and stab him (Earle) in the neck with it.”

    Other witness’ testimonies contradicted Pardy’s as well.

    Earle’s lawyer walked away from the hearing saying that to stay would be “consenting to what is an illegal process”

    Ismail, the restaurant owner, has also filed an application for judicial review

    In one way you’re right about it being more than a free speech issue. It’s about justice, which cannot be achieved in a Kangaroo Court.

  3. says

    Hmm, interesting. I wasn’t aware that he was prevented from testifying. We are supposed to have habeas corpus rights in Canada too – what happened to those? Maybe they’re only for the actual judicial system.

    The threats from Pardy and the lawyer’s grandstanding don’t really enter into it, since neither of those things contradicts the testimony that he berated her off stage as well as on. I can get behind abusive language from a comedian – I can’t get behind actual assault. Unless there’s something to substantiate the claim that Pardy is completely fabricating the assault, then my assessment stands.

  4. says

    Funny that the right not to be offended (which is the “speechie” term for the “right to be free of discriminatory speech”) is NOT a charter right, even though it is often depicted as one. Jennifer Lynch appealed to s. 15(1) of the charter which only guarantees equality UNDER THE LAW, not between private persons.

    The Taylor decision is quite clear that “freedom from discriminatory speech” is NOT a right, charter or otherwise, but is rather a societal value or goal, whose realization may justify a very limited infringement of the RIGHT to freedom of expression.

    The only thing that can be held against Earle is the allegation of assault; but last time I checked, that’s a criminal matter. Have the cops ever been called?

    btw, habeus corpus has been done away with in the HRTs by the notion of prima facie, which is a ridiculously easy standard to meet. All a complainant has to establish is that he or she is a member of any of the enumerated grounds and suffered adverse effects (hurt feelings), and the onus is shifted to the respondent.

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