Evolution of our Freedom of Expression.

AuthorDavison, Charles
PositionSpecial Report: Freedom of Speech

We tend to take for granted that in Canada we are generally free to express, and to publish or broadcast, our views and opinions about almost any subject imaginable. However, it was not always this way. In early times, those who espoused views which were not in keeping with the majority, or with the powerful, stood to suffer various forms of penalty and repercussion. The growth of our freedom of speech--intertwined with our freedoms of opinion and of the press--has been a long and sometimes painful process.

As with so many other aspects of modern Canadian law, our history of freedom of speech is rooted in that of England and the United Kingdom. In common with most other unelected kings, queens, emperors and dictators, those who ruled medieval England were not usually open to criticism and complaint. Public debate of political or other ideas threatened the authority of the Crown and undermined the theory that kings (and the occasional queen) governed through direct links to God. To question the wisdom of a decision or action of the sovereign was to suggest fallibility, and this treasonous suggestion offended accepted wisdom in the realm.

However, with the invention of the printing press, suppression of the expression of ideas became more and more difficult. New political ideas and philosophies began to circulate among the population. The government at first tried to stifle such debate, partly through licensing printing presses, and thus controlling who could use this means of spreading ideas. Nevertheless, society gradually became more open to the circulation of novel opinions and suggestions. First, the king lost the power to license printing presses to parliament, and ultimately, even parliament realized it could no longer control speech and the dissemination of ideas and opinions. Parliament allowed the final press licensing laws to expire in 1695.

Around the same time as Canada was being colonized by Europeans (and ultimately occupied by the British), there was at least a theoretical "freedom of speech", although that freedom continued to be subject to many limitations. Most of these amounted to the continuation of old ideas: the offences of treason and sedition were still defined quite broadly, as were concepts of obscenity and blasphemy. In other words, there remained a somewhat low tolerance for critical political comment against the sovereign.

And sometimes, where the powerful could not use the law, they resorted to somewhat more...

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