Commentary  Speech, power, and consequences

Words cannot be divorced from their context

Just over ten years ago today, an event at Concordia University shocked the world. Hillel, a Jewish student organization, invited former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at the school. The invitation sparked controversy, which culminated in a massive protest on the day of his speech. The protestors blocking the entrance to the hall where Netanyahu was supposed to speak were beaten by police while hundreds of other protestors watched in anger. Eventually two windows were smashed by protestors in an attempt to enter the building and support those on the inside. The successful efforts of the protestors resulted in Netanyahu cancelling his speech due to “security reasons.”

These actions, as well as numerous confrontations between protestors and speech attendees, made the events of the day prone to accusations of anti-Semitism and speech suppression. These accusations came from media, citizens, and Netanyahu himself. Despite this, I am certain that one can oppose Israel’s existence as a state without being anti-Semitic. I am also certain that the events of that day were not the death of free speech, nor an attack against it.

In Canada, citizens are guaranteed “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication” with “reasonable limitations.” This implies that citizens can say and print most things without having to fear legal punishment. As such, an example of a violation of freedom of speech would be the government imprisoning its critics.

So, when people claim that Netanyahu’s right to free speech was violated, what do they mean? Certainly Netanyahu wasn’t threatened with arrest for the speech he was going to deliver. In fact, Netanyahu enjoyed the protection of the SPVM, and was allowed into Canada despite claims that he was a war criminal who should be arrested due to violations of international law.
Instead, many of those claiming free speech died on campus that day based their accusations upon the fact that Netanyahu chose not to complete his speech for “security measures.” This interpretation of free speech is incorrect for numerous reasons.
Primarily, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of your words. Netanyahu’s right to speak does not place a duty upon his critics to sit down, shut up, and allow him to rant without interruption. After all, his critics do have their own right to public assembly.

Freedom of speech does not mean others become obliged to engage in conversation with you. People often claim that open dialogue is not only a truly democratic way to solve an issue, but also the best one. While this may be accurate in some cases, it does not give a right to impose this view on others and expect them to follow suit. And in the case mentioned, only specific people were invited to Netanyahu’s speech, relegating other students to entering school through a side door to avoid the part of Concordia the speech had occupied.

The right to free speech also cannot be divorced from the reality of power dynamics. While everyone may technically have the right to speak freely in Canadian society, those with power enjoy a privilege. For example, Netanyahu’s right to free speech shut down half of the Concordia campus. It also got him police barricades, interviews, and friendly press. The free speech of Palestinian supporters and their allies got them barred from the lecture, shut up, and largely ignored. As such, it should not be a surprise when those who get the short end of the stick with freedom of speech use alternative means of getting their points across.

Yet controversy arises every time something like the events mentioned occur. Whether it was the protests surrounding Ann Coulter’s attempt to speak at the University of Ottawa, or the supposed unwillingness of those involved in the tuition strike to engage in discourse, free speech is constantly misinterpreted to benefit those who already hold a disproportionate amount of power. Therefore, those who protest should be congratulated for expanding free speech, not killing it. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Davide Mastracci is a U2 History and Political Science Joint Honours student. He can be reached davide.mastracci@mail.mcgill.ca.

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