Friday, March 21, 2008

When is a free speech violation not a free speech violation?

Answer: when the case involves either the withdrawal of state funding for your artwork or the loss of a public sector job for speaking your mind. Leaving the issue of Bill C-10 aside for another day, let us consider the latter scenario: say, for example, that you are a public school teacher. You earn your living in the public sector, and are paid with taxpayer money. Your job is to mold young minds, to educate and inspire young ones. But in this hypothetical, you are a racist. Not the subtle kind who mutters epithets in private, or expounds upon loony conspiracy theories among friends. No, you are the type of racist who wants to shout your message from the mountaintops, and so you make your crazy ideas well known to anyone who will listen. Naturally, you are eventually fired from your job.

Has the state violated your freedom of speech? The Supreme Court said yes, but I must respectfully disagree. The case was Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15 from 1996. Malcolm Ross, our teacher, had been articulating his anti-semitic views in pamphlets, books, and television interviews. His convictions were fairly well-known in the community, and this led some people to question whether he was really the best man for his position. A parent filed a complaint with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, which ordered that Ross be given a non-teaching position.

Has anyone's free speech been violated? I would answer that question in the negative. Ross has the right to promulgate his hateful views. He does not have the right to promulgate his hateful views while being a schoolteacher. Speech will always have consequences, and people will always have to make choices about how much they want to say and when. I do not think this case has anything to do with the current questions about Human Rights Commissions and free speech.