Here's another story about how restrictions on free speech ultimately get used to quell political debate and silence certain opinions, no matter what the intentions were in developing those restrictions.
I was following a story from Toronto last month on Page1Q (didn't post about it here, though) about how the Toronto Pride committee set up a panel to pre-approve signs people wanted to march with in pride this year.
In a press release, Pride Toronto co-chair Jim Cullen wrote that all messages must "support the theme of the 2010 festival, celebrating '30 Years of Pride in Toronto.'"
People immediately thought the new policy was meant to keep Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) out of the parade, although some people thought it was about homocons as well (they're always the victim). A Facebook group called "Don't Sanitize Pride" was created and thousands joined. The Pride committee's spokesperson refused to say why the policy was put in place.
Around this time, word came out about focus group discussions the Pride committee paid for that were held by a private PR firm. They were supposed to talk about general speech issues and messaging at Pride, but apparently it turned out to be all about QuAIA:
GULKIN: With the banned sign on it. So in the discussion, which became quite heated, they said, "You guys were wearing swastikas." I mean, I had not seen any swastikas, and that's when the focus group moderator, Chad [Rogers], said, "I've seen pictures." Now, I didn't know about this whole kerfuffle, about this whole anti-Nazi logo at the time, so I thought "Well, if you've seen pictures, you've seen pictures. But I certainly didn't see anything like that."
He immediately supported their claim that that's what happened. Since then, I've heard that there's one doctored photo circulating, with the banned part, the circle with the line through it, taken out of that photo, so it did appear that a participant was wearing an actual swastika. I haven't seen that, I've only heard about it. So I don't know what Chad [Rogers] actually saw.[...]
GULKIN: Oh! They were just listening in. And at one point one of them -- and this was very disturbing after the claims that were made about swastikas being worn by QuAIA members, one of them turned to me and said, "Well, if you think that anyone with any politics should come in the march, what is to stop the Ku Klux Klan from marching with us." And I thought, "Oh my god, this is how they frame the entire debate! It's now gone from QuAIA wearing swastikas to the Ku Klux Klan is going to march." I was really disturbed by that.
A week later, the policy was rescinded:
Responding to community outrage, largely voiced on Facebook and Twitter, Pride Toronto (PT) issued an open letter to the community on March 23:
"The Board of Directors of Pride Toronto has listened to feedback from the community, and the proposed plan for an Ethics Committee to review and approve all messaging prior to the Parade, Dyke and Trans March has been withdrawn. The process followed during the 2009 festival will remain in place for 2010."
It was sort of left at that, except now the City of Toronto is stepping in and threatening to take away funding from next year's Pride if QuAIA is allowed to march in this year's pride:
The city, which gave Pride $121,000 in 2009, believes its anti-discrimination policy was likely violated by QuAIA's conduct and very presence at last summer's parade, said general manager of economic development and culture Mike Williams. If Pride were to permit another violation, Williams said, there could be "very serious" repercussions.
"We have the right to disqualify them from future grants, so we certainly would look at that," he said. Characterizing his message as a "strong warning," he added: "Every circumstance is different, so I'm loath to tell somebody flat out, 'If this happens you won't get your money next year,' but it sure would become a very strong possibility."
Pride executive director Tracey Sandilands did not respond to messages requesting comment on Williams' statements. In an interview hours earlier, Sandilands said Pride had not yet determined whether or not QuAIA would be permitted to participate this year.
"We have no legal grounds to ban the word apartheid," she said. "While I understand that there are a lot of people who don't like the wording, there's got to be more than just the name of the organization." But, she said, "The city has now pointed out to us that in terms of the anti-discrimination policy, the fact that those words make certain participants feel uncomfortable means that we were in contravention of the policy... Whether there was a funding issue attached to it or not, we would not want to be in contravention of an anti-discrimination policy. That would be crazy."
The fact that certain people "feel uncomfortable" seems to be the city's entire basis for wanting to censor QuAIA's message at Pride:
City policy for grant recipients prohibits discrimination based on religion, place of origin and other traits. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, city manager of diversity management and community engagement, she said she looked to Ontario Human Rights Commission guidelines in assessing whether discrimination occurred at Pride.
The guidelines, she said, discuss racism that creates a "poisoned environment." She said QuAIA had created an environment at Pride "where not everybody feels welcome." Thus, she said, the city's message to Pride was: "You've got a problem. Deal with it."
Some people are going to have a problem with any message and therefore feel unwelcome. The message that "gay is good" is enough to drive some people to counterprotest pride - that's not a good reason to stop delivering that message.
Any political or cultural message worth delivering is going to piss some people off, that's just the reality of any political debate. But the mere fact that some people are pissed off isn't a good reason to stop a form of speech - in fact, it's a great reason to continue a certain message. People who aren't challenged by speech don't get angry or uncomfortable, and we can't expect all speech to be sanitized to the point where no one has to hear something that they disagree with.
That sort of speech isn't covered by Canada's hate speech laws, but that's not the point. The minute people start to become OK with certain speech being limited, people will find ways to force a square peg in a round hole and make speech that challenges them illegal. Consider:
The aborted [sign approval] policy was prompted in part by complaints about QuAIA from Councillor Kyle Rae, Jewish advocacy groups, and gay and Jewish lawyer Martin Gladstone. Gladstone produced and circulated a film, called Reclaiming Our Pride, which shows one marcher wearing a shirt with a crossed-out swastika and features fuzzy audio of others chanting words Gladstone interprets as "fist by fist, blow by blow, apartheid state has got to go."
QuAIA says the chant was actually "brick by brick, wall by wall, Israeli apartheid is going to fall"; Flanders said even Gladstone's version is not hateful. The group also says the marcher sporting the crossed-out swastika was not a QuAIA member and that, regardless, his shirt actually condemned fascism.
The city, said Williams, "didn't do a formal review and weigh all the evidence." Rather, it decided its policies had likely been violated based on reports from councillors and members of the public. Bureaucrats had three concerns: the chants, the swastika, and the use of the phrase "Israeli apartheid."
The crossed-out swastika is an internationally recognized anti-fascist symbol; even a German court understood it as such (and Germans are far more restrictive than anyone else when it comes to use of Nazi symbolism). One person writing in to the Toronto Star said that he marched in the 1980's with a group that called itself the "Simon Nkodi Anti-Apartheid Committee," which opposed apartheid in South Africa, so the word itself can't be a problem. Not to mention the fact that the video sounds like it was doctored, and, more importantly, that there was no process here to determine the truth outside.
This specific instance of restricted speech isn't about Canada's hate speech laws, though, and is instead about the city of Toronto's sponsorship of pride. These sorts of debates should happen within the community, and we should definitely be talking about how we want to represent ourselves at Pride and what political messages are welcome. If the LGBT community in Toronto wanted to only have messages that directly relate to queer culture and politics, I'd call them sad but that's their right.
Which is why I didn't post here about the fracas last month when it appeared that the Pride committee itself didn't want QuAIA to participate; I'm not a part of the Toronto LGBT community and there are safeguards in place that keep Pride accountable. But now it's obvious that that wasn't the case, that this wasn't a decision from within the LGBT community, that this was a mandate from the city government about what sort of political messages are OK and which ones aren't. And that's not OK - what if a Pride in America were denied a permit to march because a group marching with them supported ending tax exemptions for politically active churches or wanted to impeach Obama or told people to practice free love and those messages made some people "uncomfortable"?
And while Canada's hate speech laws aren't being used here, there are quite a few people quoted in the linked articles above talking about how hate speech is OK to ban, how certain messages are wrong and the city should keep bottled up, but this message isn't one of them. They've already been trained in the idea that some people should be silenced, that there are some messages that people can't hear without being corrupted, and they're just fighting over who gets to choose which messages are silenced.