This month a Toronto judge ordered two men to be deprived of their freedom over words and pictures they published in a paper – and no one said boo. Not the press, which mostly confined itself to reporting the bare facts of the case. Certainly not any of the political parties, even though their existence depends on the right to speak freely and sharply.
James Sears and LeRoy St. Germaine were found guilty earlier this year of promoting hatred. The judge said their local publication, Your Ward News, “consistently dehumanized Jews and women.” So, when it came time for sentencing, he threw the book at them. Mr. Sears, the editor, is to serve a year in jail, though he is free now while he appeals. Mr. St. Germaine, the publisher, gets 12 months of house arrest. He says he will appeal, too.
None of the usual guardians of free speech seemed to find this even a little troubling. Judging from the thunderous silence that greeted the sentences, they consider it perfectly acceptable that this dubious pair should lose their liberty for what they put in their nasty little paper. After all, who could feel sorry for people who published such vile things?
But you don’t have to sympathize with Mr. Sears and Mr. St. Germaine to be worried about sending them away. Free speech is under attack all over, from both the right and the left. The notion that fringe voices should be silenced rather than countered or simply ignored is gaining force. To see a Canadian court embrace that view is alarming. Except in the case of direct incitement to violence, democracies shouldn’t jail people for things they write or say. That is a move from an autocrat’s playbook.
It is only too easy for governments to argue that those who oppose or criticize them are fomenting unrest or spreading hate. Right now in China, authorities are labelling Hong Kong’s protesters as dangerous radicals who despise the motherland. When North America was in the grip of a Red Scare, those with left-wing views were considered subversive. If they said the capitalism system was corrupt and must be overthrown, they were encouraging the populace to stage a violent insurrection. We look back at the suppression of the left then as a gross overreaction, even hysteria.
In fraught times, the tendency to crack down on radicals, crackpots and dissenters grows. With a bilious ranter in the White House and poisonous populism on the rise around the world, these are fraught times indeed. The prosecutor in the Your Ward News case said that the Crown intends to enforce the laws against promoting hate with renewed vigilance because “in today’s current climate … it’s become of greater concern.”
But using the criminal law to crack down on troublesome and even obnoxious views is the wrong response. It hands governments a cudgel they can easily misuse. It gives cranks and trolls the spotlight they crave. Mr. Sears and Mr. St. Germaine seem delighted by all the attention. Mr. St. Germaine said his partner emerged from court with “fresh handcuff marks still on his wrists in the same spots where Jesus was wounded when he was nailed to the cross.”
Worst of all, it threatens the free and unrestrained exchange of ideas that helps societies progress. The great advantage that democracies have over other forms of governments is that they can work through conflicts by discussion and argument instead of violence. A system where views are aired and tested is simply better at sorting out problems. That system is truly safe only when all views, even the most odious ones, are allowed to circulate.
That doesn’t mean we are helpless in the face of hate. One way to fight the haters is to argue back, denouncing their slurs and combatting their falsehoods. Another is to turn away. If you find Your Ward News despicable, consign it to the trash. Deny the trolls their martyrdom. Just don’t chuck them in jail. Do that and we are all in trouble.