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A man holds up a giant pencil during a gathering in Tarbes, southern France, on January 8, 2015, in tribute to the 12 people killed at the editorial office in Paris of French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. AFP PHOTO / LAURENT DARDLAURENT DARD/AFP/Getty ImagesLAURENT DARD/AFP / Getty Images

You've probably never heard of Hamza Chaoui.

Until last week, that was true of most everyone in his adopted hometown of Montreal or within Quebec's diverse Muslim community.

Mr. Chaoui is a self-described imam who has been known to rail against democracy ("Islamic law and democracy are two parallel lines that will never intersect"), homosexuals, gender equality and even popular music.

He and his views languished in deserved obscurity – until public officials rose to denounce him and to try to shut him up. That gave him a lot of free publicity and turned him into something of a cause célèbre.

This past weekend, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, the former federal Liberal cabinet minister, and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough Mayor Réal Ménard, a former Bloc Québéois MP, cooked up a probably unconstitutional and certainly unnecessary way of preventing Mr. Chaoui from opening a community centre in the city's east end.

This is exactly the wrong approach.

We don't need freedom of speech to protect popular ideas. If freedom of speech means anything, it means the right to utter inanities that any reasonable person would find repugnant. That's the whole point. You don't have to listen. You don't have to agree. But you don't get to stop someone from speaking or publishing.

This should have been the lesson of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last month. To defend the French satirical weekly, you didn't need to share the opinion and outlook of every one of its cartoons. All you had to know was that it was speech – a fundamental right deserving of protection.

Ironically, all the brouhaha in Montreal has done is to provide a giant megaphone to Mr. Chaoui through which he can propagate opinions that are best ignored.

Mr. Chaoui had already been rendered a marginal, obscure figure by his co-religionists. He was reportedly bounced from a mosque in the Montreal borough of Anjou because congregants had no appetite for his screwball entreaties and preferred not to have young people exposed to them.

In fact, one mosque-goer told La Presse that Mr. Chaoui had been reported to the authorities.

However, in the time Mr. Chaoui has been preaching – he dispensed his particular version of Koranic instruction while a student at Quebec City's Laval University – he has never been charged criminally with inciting hatred or violence.

It's a line he is evidently wary of approaching. Mr. Chaoui protests he is simply exercising his right to express his opinions, no matter how repellent they may be to others.

Politicians of various stripes have also given their speech rights a good workout, calling Mr. Chaoui "dangerous" and "an agent of radicalization," among a great many other things.

Communities all over the world are wrestling with the question of fundamentalist groups, Islamic or otherwise, and how to deal with them.

In Canada, it appears a growing list of objectionable ideas and beliefs are to be hunted down and subjected to the full weight of the state. And so it was that, on Monday, the borough council presided over by Mr. Ménard amended its definition of a community centre to specifically forbid religious teaching, effectively shutting down Mr. Chaoui's aspirations.

More rule-tightening will presumably follow; Mr. Coderre has gone so far as to say, "I oppose radicalism in all its forms."

Otherwise sane provincial lawmakers in Quebec have been involved in a multi-partisan argument, now in its second year, around how to legislate against religious fundamentalism. There hasn't been much of an argument over whether that's a good thing to do; it seems to be a given.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, the expansion of the police state continues apace, fuelled by the irrational Islamic State fears ginned up by the Conservative government.

What if the solution to all of this were as simple as more free speech?

In the marketplace of ideas, hateful, offensive and small-minded beliefs can and should be vigorously confronted. But instead of using the law to shut them down, fight back with speech that shows them up. Incitement to violence is a crime, and always has been. But some of the speech politicians are talking about shutting down falls well short of that long-standing legal line.

Opinions can be changed. Bad ideas can be shunted aside. People can stop listening to nonsense, or they can never start in the first place. That is essentially what happened to Mr. Chaoui's reactionary spiel in Anjou.

The process was working swimmingly. And then the politicians got involved.