The Magazine

Speaking of Islam

Liberty and grievance in Canada.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By LEE HARRIS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

So what are we really dealing with here? A grave threat to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of free speech, as some seem to think, or a cautionary tale of bureaucratic folly in a nanny state running amok?

Before the commencement of his hearing, Levant read a statement in which he refused to recognize that the commission had the authority to summon him before it to answer questions relating to Soharwardy's complaint. Levant vehemently asserts that he, like everyone else, has the unconditional right to engage in speech that is offensive and unreasonable. The defiant and pugnacious attitude that Levant took has been widely echoed by his supporters, and there has been a uniform tendency to lump the various Canadian tribunals and commissions together under the heading of kangaroo courts, intent on violating what Levant, in his opening remarks, called his "inalienable" right to freedom of expression, further sanctioned, in his words, by "the 800-year tradition" of English common law on the subject.

Macaulay would have been quite surprised to learn that from the 12th century onward there were no restrictions on speech under English common law. As a Whig, Macaulay might have reminded Levant that it took the Whig revolution to secure anything like the kind of liberty of discussion that we take for granted. During the reign of James I, Macaulay might have noted, there was a heated controversy over the degree to which members of the House of Commons could freely speak their minds during a session of Parliament, and even those members of the House who pushed to protect their own right of free speech recognized that there were obvious limits beyond which it would be improper to go. No member of the House of Commons could urge the overthrow of the monarchy, for instance, or make speeches that endangered the general welfare.

In 17th-century England, no one doubted that it was often in the public interest to curb men's tongues. During the reign of Charles I, for example, the archbishop of Canterbury William Laud decided to hand down a ruling that forbade ministers to discuss the sublime mysteries associated with Calvin's doctrine of predestination. They could not preach it, nor could they preach against it. They could not mention it at all. This was clearly an infringement on the right of free speech, but for Laud it was an infringement that was amply justified in the interests of domestic tranquility and social harmony. For Laud, what was at stake was not so much the promotion of his own theological opinions as the suppression of the furor theologicus that had caused so much devastation in England and throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation. What Laud wanted to achieve was not the victory of his own narrow theological opinions, but the eradication of all theological divisiveness, along with the rancor and the violence that came with it. His goal was to bring about uniformity of religious opinion and practice by weaning the English population away from violent disputations over inherently unsolvable mysteries.

If Macaulay represented the Whig approach to liberty of discussion, Laud could be said to represent the Tory approach. For Macaulay, free speech was the foundation of mankind's "intellectual improvement," so that any state that interfered with the free expression of ideas had impeded the growth of knowledge and the ethical uplift of the race. In addition, for the Whig, free speech was the ultimate bulwark against governmental or ecclesiastical despotism. For the Tory, on the other hand, the state not only had a legitimate right to interfere with free speech under certain conditions, it had a duty to interfere. If liberty of discussion threatened to incite men to violence, or caused them to take the law in their own hands, then the state, representing the general welfare and not merely its own selfish interests, had to curb this so-called liberty. Liberty yes, license, no. When preaching sermons about predestination becomes tantamount to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, then such sermons must cease.