Where’s that pesky free-speech line?

By Ivor Shapiro

A discussion thread in Town Hall over recent days required an editorial decision that seems interesting enough to warrant a rare word of commentary from me as editor. In a nutshell, the question is: when does free speech become so offensive that to publish it is wrong?

The short answer is: I don’t know.

What’s kind of postmodern about the case is that our decision was not about publishing an article on our own pages, but about allowing a comment on our pages about a complaint about an article published elsewhere. The article had given offence to some, the complaint to others, and our commenter’s comment was, in my view, offensive to more than a billion residents of Earth.

Got that?

The slightly longer version is this. In December, a group of law graduates and students launched a complaint before the Human Rights Commission against Maclean’s magazine over an October 2006 excerpt from a book by Mark Steyn under the headline, “The future belongs to Islam.” The complaint followed a report (prepared in part by the complainants) on a number of Maclean’s articles about Islam. “One of the central themes of these articles,” according to the report, “include the allegation that the Muslim community, including the Canadian Muslim community, is part of a global conspiracy to take over western societies.”

The human-rights complaint spawned a debate about the limits, if any, of free speech. On February 8th, our Town Hall moderator, esteemed blogger and veteran reporter, Deborah Jones, posted a note that led with the following straightforward (to say the least) statement of her views: “Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, has issued an odious news release regarding Maclean’s that, in my opinion, reeks of ignorance, clobbers different points of view, and is offensive in the extreme.”

Jones went on to spotlight Elmasry’s tarring as “Islamophobes” those (including Jones) who opposed the human rights complaint on free-expression grounds.

“Elmasry … rightly, in my opinion, challenges Mark Steyn’s alarmist arguments about Muslims,” Jones wrote. “Good for him: challenges, counter-challenges and reasonable free expression of opinion and thought are how things work in an open society; that’s how we grope toward ‘truths’ and toward finding our better selves. But Elmasry  — along with the lawyers taking Maclean’s to court over Steyn’s writings — are seemingly not interested in free speech or openness….” Jones went on to expand on her argument and posted links to relevant comments by others and, of course, also posted Elmasry’s entire press release.

A few days later, we posted additional links in our weekly J-Topics section, and highlighted the debate as our front-page “Big Issue.”

That’s when the comments came in.

No problem there – we’re always happy when users click the “Comments” button, and especially happy to see a wide range of opinions reflected as a result.

On this particular thread, some heated views were expressed, on both sides of the debate. No problem there, either. I chimed in myself with a somewhat preachy (if I say it myself) call to civility: “The lines of legitimate expression are drawn on both sides of the field—by human-rights and hate laws on one side, and by the Charter’s ‘fundamendal freedoms’ (clause 2b) on the other, ” I wrote. “Both lines can be defended at once if those expressing their views do so with restraint and with a determination to show respect for their opponents. In this Maclean’s debate, I see failures to do that on both sides.”

Then came the troubling moment. Responding directly to a sentence in my post, in which I suggested that fear of Islam (“literally, Islamophobia”) is sometimes fuelled by careless media reporting, a commenter wrote:

“A phobia is an irrational fear. Fearing Islam is quite rational if you are at all connected to the world. What part of the terrorism, Sharia laws, the violence visited upon gays in the Muslim world and all of their other dysfunction do you not get? Or better stated, that you don’t get it doesn’t mean that the rest of us that do are irrational. I can’t think of a more intolerant and violent entity in the world that is worse than Islam right now.

“And, quite frankly the mainstream press under-reports the negative aspects of Islam and its threat to all of us with their cowering self-censoring pc behavior. “

I grant this commenter—she identified herself as “Amy”—the literal meaning of “phobia.” But the rest of her sentiment goes, in my view, beyond mere “offence.” She is clearly not just speaking of Islam-inspired terror or, to use her term, “dysfunction.” She is speaking of the religion itself.

For the record, I have a fear of Islam, too, but no more than I fear other religions. My fear is not of the belief systems themselves, but the way that they can fuel extreme ideologies and actions. Religious justifications can make people less reasonable about listening to opposing views, and more apt to act in righteous fury. But few would blame Christianity itself for Christian fundamentalists’ extremism, and it’s generally considered rank anti-Semitism to link Israel’s actions on civilian targets to the Jewish faith. If the expression of such views generally fail the stench test, then no less should the view that Islam itself constitutes an “intolerant and violent entity.” The bulk of the world’s one and a quarter billion Muslims (Brittanica figures) surely want little more than what the five billion others of us want: a peaceful, healthy and reasonably happy life with our families.

One more piece of background: J-Source’s comments policy, which shows up as soon as someone hits the “Comments” button, reads, in part: “Those posting comments are expected to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness that would be recognized by those who practise, teach or study journalism.”

It also says: “Please communicate as effectively and intelligently as you would in a professional or academic forum, and please sign your post unless there is a sound and clear reason for anonymity.”

It’s clear enough to me that “Amy” violated our standards.

So we hit the “delete” button, right?

Something stopped us—something more in the gut than the head. As journalists, we hate the idea of censoring views, especially views that we oppose. If a journalism site doesn’t provide, in its comments section, a place for free debate that pushes at the boundaries of opinion on any relevant subject, then where may such a place be found?

That said, we are not going to allow J-Source to be used for hate speech, defamation, or lies. Had “Amy” come right out and said that all Muslims (or any other demographic group) should be regarded as potential terrorists (or any other such outright defamation), we would have disapproved the comment without hesitation. As it is, she seems to have left some ambiguity in her remarks: is it possible, for instance, that she meant roughly what I said above about religions in general? The hint of ambiguity makes us feel queasy about playing censor.

At least, that’s where the matter stands at time of writing. As I said at the start of this note, I don’t know what the right thing to do is—and will consult my fellow editors at our next meeting to explore the question more fully. Should we police our comments policy rigorously, or expect commenters to rein themselves in and delete comments only when they cross the line in the most blatant of ways?

What do you think? As someone who cares enough about journalism to be reading this, you should have a voice in what kind of venue J-Source should be. The “Comments” button is staring right at you.

But please, try to be nice.

Ivor Shapiro is the Editor-in-Chief of J-Source.