In Canada and elsewhere, freedom of speech is on the endangered list.

AuthorCooper, John
PositionSpecial Report: Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. These phrases may conjure up Hollywood-style images of noble activists and principled reporters butting heads with those in power--and winning. However, the reality is often far different: surveillance, gag orders, expensive and oppressive lawsuits, and activists and journalists being arrested, imprisoned--and in extreme cases, even dying--for their convictions.

For a long time, the issue of press freedom focused largely on the journalistic coverage of criminal trials. W. H. Kesterton, in his 1976 book The Law and the Press in Canada, said that in Canada and Great Britain, "the considerations of a fair trial prevail over considerations of a free press... the press is restrained in most cases where unfairness in a trial seems likely to result." By contrast, U.S. press freedoms are covered under that country's first amendment, giving the impression of a "freer" press.

But the advent of social media platforms and the rapid dissemination of information--both real and fake--has generated a hot debate. Issues range from the balancing act of regulated-versus-open use (especially in cases where there are questions of accuracy) to the U.S. government engaging the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for the 2010 dissemination of secret documents (seen as subversive by some and as free speech by others). As well, the rights of American individuals were threatened with a May 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting the right of police officers to not be sued for arresting anyone on the basis of "probable cause". This means an officer can make an arrest for anything considered to be "wrongful behaviour," from protesting outside a consulate to using a cellphone under what could subjectively be deemed "suspicious" circumstances.

It all speaks to a tighter rein on personal and press freedoms. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides a guarantee of freedom of expression and press freedom, with some provisos and grey areas. While free speech may be legally restricted as a means of ending discrimination and promoting gender equality and social harmony, the definition of the punishable crime of hate speech remains vague. Though the Charter promises "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication," much has changed in the 40-plus years since Kesterton's book.

Denis Rancourt, a researcher with the Ontario Civil...

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