Yesterday, R. Conrad wrote about the Toronto Pride Parade's decision not to allow a banner reading "Israeli Apartheid" in the upcoming parade. In response, over twenty Pride Toronto honorees from the last decade have returned their awards. Noting that the parade allows floats from "Home Depot and Budweiser who have little to do with queerness let alone a sense of pride," he asked whether
we continue to try and resuscitate pride events by injecting them with a good dose of sex and politics, or do we let the corporate machines of late capitalism devour the hollow bodies of most pride events while the rest of us work to start new events and new traditions to celebrate our sex and politics?
Commenters picked up on these threads, discussing whether concerns about "Israeli Apartheid" are relevant to a Pride parade and whether corporate influence is good or bad.
I think these issues are interesting and useful, but an important underlying issue is how Canadians understand law and freedom of speech, and how that affects Canadian politics. I teach Comparative Legal Systems, and one thing I consistently note is how difficult it is for my students to understand that legal structures in other countries are like different planets. Not even the gravity is the same.
The U.S. Constitution says that Congress cannot make any law abridging the freedom of speech. This appears to be absolute, though it is not, in practice, because that would be impossible. Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a very hard line on creating any new exceptions to freedom of speech. By contrast, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of speech, says that it is subject to reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
At issue here is government action to ban "hate speech." In the U.S., it cannot be done.
While using hate speech in a public place might be considered under the US catch-all crime of "disorderly conduct," a statute that prohibited calling people bad names would very likely fall. Even statutes outlawing cross burnings are unconstitutional as an infringement on the right to free speech, unless the statute requires proof of "intent to intimidate." "Hate crimes" statutes, which permit enhanced penalties for crimes based on bias against certain groups, are permissible if they punish violent acts committed by the defendant, such as assault or murder, but not if they directly punish ideas, even hateful ones.
In Canada, by contrast, there are laws against certain types of hateful speech. The Canadian Criminal Code forbids "hate propaganda." It prohibits inciting hatred against any identifiable group distinguished by color, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. It also permits confiscation of publications containing hate propaganda. There are exemptions for true statements, religious discussions, subjects of public interest, or pointing out hate propaganda to remove it.
Thus, in the U.S., no government can ban statements about "Israeli Apartheid." They can't even remove funding based on that, as it would constitute an action infringing on free speech.
In Canada, however, not only can the government ban "Israeli Apartheid," it seems they have a duty to do so. They would have an equal duty to ban a statement about "Palestinian Terrorism." I'm not sure I'm legally allowed to write these words and have them show up on a Canadian computer screen, or whether Canadians may view them.
I don't fit into the exception for pointing out hate propaganda to remove it. I have no problem with the banner. I have disagreed with Israel's policies regarding Palestinians for a long time now, feeling them to be inhumane for the Palestinians, and only certain to lead to disaster for Israel.
With that as background, here's some reporting on the reasons for the banning of the phrase. It's important to note that the group "Queers Against Israeli Apartheid" is not banned from the parade, but banners saying their name are banned.
From CBC, a respected mainstream media outlet:
The use of the words has put the Pride organizers on a collision course with the City of Toronto, which says the name of the group 'Queers Against Israeli Apartheid' violates its anti-discrimination policy.
In 2009, the city gave the Pride festival $121,000 to help defray costs.
* * *
Traci Sandilands, executive director of Pride Toronto, says the controversy is a serious threat to the festival.
"If we had not made this decision Pride would not have been able to take place. We would have had to cancel the 2010 festival, close our doors and file for bankruptcy," she said.
From the Canadian Free Press, a conservative news outlet.
And last month, the federal government announced that they were withdrawing almost $400,000 in funding for the parade. While the official version was that this was done for fairness, to spread the money around the country, it is hard to believe that the publicity surrounding QuAIA's role in the event did not play any part in the decision of the feds to scrap the funding. And in May, Toronto City Councillor and mayoral candidate Giorgio Mammoliti put a motion on the table for the city to deny funding to the parade if QuAIA is allowed to participate. According to Mammoliti and others, the Toronto Gay Pride Parade would be in breach of the city's anti-discrimination policy.
The directors voted to implement banning the phrase reluctantly. They bowed under pressure while insisting that free speech was paramount. They equivocated until they decided they couldn't risk the city of Toronto withholding funding on the basis of a violation of the anti-discrimination policy.
I have my doubts about whether corporate sponsorship is a good thing. I'm pretty certain that Israel is going down the wrong path.
A commenter on the previous post said that there is no Israeli Apartheid because there are a million Arab Israelis who enjoy equal rights. "Apartheid" may be the wrong word, and Israel certainly has to take into account the issue of arms flowing into a hotbed of violent extremism. But that doesn't lessen the injustice of what is happening in Gaza.
I also feel strongly that the queer community's quest for justice must extend beyond our own little issues, and that political involvement is the essence of a Pride Parade. I'm well aware that some people mix anti-semitism in with their criticism of Israel, and I'm sensitive to that as a Jew, but that is nowhere in evidence here.
The legal environment of Canada, however, under which the Toronto Pride Parade is operating, prohibits hate propaganda directed against ethnic origin. Israeli is an ethnic origin.
I disagree with Canadian law, and think its restrictions on peaceful protest speech are calculated to repress, which may cause more violence than it prevents in the long run.
But I do not disagree with the proposition that people have an obligation to follow the law. I'm also sensitive to the fact that different places call for different laws. I'm not sorry that Germany bans display of the Nazi swastika.
I hope that, whether or not "Israeli Apartheid" appears in the parade, this controversy will stir some much needed discussion.