Within the ongoing hub-bub of public discourse, debate over speech persists like a constant hum; in the past few years often focused on the alleged impact of so-called “Cancel Culture”. This is a theme not just of conservatives – from the far right to more mainstream voices in both the US and Canada – but in the opinion columns of media heavyweights such as the Globe & Mail.

More recently the conversation around free speech has built to somewhat of a crescendo due to three very concerning developments: the right-wing offensive against teaching about racism, sexual orientation and gender diversity (Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation for example), Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter in order to gut its content moderation and terms of service policies (which supposedly target conservative content) and the domestic terrorist attack at Tops Supermarket in Buffalo by a white supremacist radicalized by immersion in far-right social media.

While the spotlight may be temporarily on the dangers of unrestricted speech, we can expect the right to strive mightily to get back off their hind foot and work to change the conversation back to the supposed excesses of “woke Cancel Culture”. The rank hypocrisy of doing so while simultaneously engaging in virtual book-burning with regard to views they oppose will not give them a moment’s pause.

In Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz details how gaslighting was, and remains, a deliberate – and unfortunately effective – strategy employed by this movement: the presentation of a false narrative to another group or person which leads them to doubt their perceptions and become misled, disoriented or distressed. A future article will explore how the myth of Cancel Culture is an important example of this strategy.

In his provocatively titled, The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism and the Future of Dissent, P.E Moskowitz points out the New York Times – practically the bible of the liberal establishment – has devoted far more column inches over the past few years decrying the plight of conservatives and even far-right voices on campuses supposedly under the hegemonic control of woke social justice warriors than on the right-wing assault on fundamental democratic rights – both through legislation and outright violence.

Moskwitz clarifies in his introduction that it is not Free Speech as such he has problems with but the way the ahistorical and de-politicized mythologizing of this concept distorts our understanding of how to defend this crucial human right while carefully defining its appropriate limits. As the right continues and accelerates its assault on basic democratic norms, often under the cloak of Free Speech, it is useful to arm ourselves with a better understanding of its origins and implications.

In the US people of course refer to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In Canada the general principle goes back to Confederation which incorporated British common law and practice as it had developed to that point in the late 19th century. Then it was codified in the 1982 Constitution within the Charter of Rights.

The Charter is less absolute than the American predecessor: Section 1 of the Charter allows the government to pass laws that limit free expression so long as the limits are “reasonable and can be justified in a free and democratic society”. In practice, these include prohibitions of hate speech (which refers to the advocacy and incitement of genocide or violence against a particular defined racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious or other identifiable group), as well as obscenity and libel.

This is all well and good as far as it goes. The problem is that this “right” – along with others included in the Charter – is presented as a magnanimous gift handed to us by our elites or somehow intrinsic to the nature of liberal capitalist regimes. This often creates confusion when complex questions of defining reasonable limitations are debated; how to prevent abusive and harmful speech and importantly, the enforcement of such limits. The following does not pretend to provide definitive answers to these thorny questions but simply to provide some context and food for thought – and perhaps inspire you to delve more deeply into the history and current thinking of these issues. Unlike specialized fields of science, virology and epidemiology for example, “doing your own research” is both possible and advisable!

At least in English speaking countries we are taught to trace the origins of universal rights to the Magna Carta, the battles of English Parliamentarians against absolute monarchy and the philosophical writings of political theorists like John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Perhaps not coincidentally, all the above actions and writings were performed by wealthy and powerful white men.

It’s a lovely story, its only drawback being that it’s not even remotely factual. The Magna Carta was no more than a power sharing agreement between the King and a handful of powerful Barons, which in any case was abrogated by the King shortly after it’s signing. No one thought much of it for the next four centuries and if they had would certainly have laughed at the idea that it implied any change in the servile status of serfs, let alone landless labourers or even the free artisans of villages and towns. It was dragged out of obscurity in the 17th century by a slightly larger slice of the aristocratic class that once again was at odds with an absolute monarch over prerogatives involving religious practices and taxation and looking for some precedent for their position.

That the rights they claimed were never meant to extend to the lower classes; not even the lesser landed gentry – or God forbid, women – is clear from their actions. After abolishing the King’s censorship, they replaced it with their own, directed against religious non-conformists and social reformers. And it was not just a problem of faulty application of admirable principles. The aforementioned John Locke (1632–1704) was primarily concerned with theological matters: the right to seek salvation for one’s soul. Locke neither supported a universal toleration of peoples nor freedom of speech; according to his ideas, some groups, such as atheists, should not be allowed.

Notably, as Howard W. French points out in his myth busting book – Born in Blackness, Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World – the young Professor Locke was one of the early investors in the Company of Adventurers into Africa – essentially a state-sponsored band of robbers as one historian described it. Originally created to muscle in on the African gold trade it quickly changed its focus to place the kidnapping and enslavement of human beings at the heart of its activities. We can safely assume that neither John Locke nor his fellow investors, including members of the Royal Family, thought that free speech or any other part of his vaunted “social contract” applied to those they brutalized and worked to early deaths on the plantations of the Caribbean and American mainland.

It was the Levellers who fought to extend the principles of freedom of conscience and expression, to generalize and even universalize them. The Levellers were a largely labouring-class political movement during the English Civil War (1642–1651) committed to popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. Their leaders and spokespersons were imprisoned by the “Grandees” in control of the Parliamentary revolution and the movement ultimately crushed.

A hundred and fifty years later, on 16 August 1819, up to 60,000 working class people from the towns and villages of what is now Greater Manchester marched to St Peter’s Field in central Manchester to demand political representation at a time when only wealthy landowners could vote. Their peaceful protest turned bloody when Manchester magistrates ordered a private militia paid for by rich locals to storm the crowd with sabres. An estimated 18 people died and more than 650 were injured in what came to be known as the Peterloo massacre. While this outrage stalled the momentum toward greater freedom and democracy it did not stop it.

In the 1820s and 1830s the Magna Carta (really the myth that had grown up around it) was increasingly used by those who wanted reform. The Chartist movement was born of a desire to have a ‘People’s Charter’, a Magna Carta for the masses. They argued that the nobility got their rights protected in 1215 and the middle classes got theirs with the 1832 Reform Act. But it took intense effort through most of the next 100 years to achieve these goals, including finally the extension of the vote to women in the years following the First World War.

Before we get carried away celebrating this often difficult, even bloody, yet apparently inexorable march toward greater rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly – culminating at different points in the 19th century in the various western democracies – it has to be pointed out that in practice the enjoyment of these rights was, and remains, far from universal even in the in so-called “democracies”.

In Canada, the most outrageous and prolonged violation of basic freedoms, including freedom of speech – or as it should be more broadly understood: freedom of expression – is of course the notorious Indian Act, its predecessors and subsequent amendments. The Act made it illegal for First Nations peoples to engage in their religious ceremonies or traditional cultural gatherings; gatherings which often embodied their governance structures stretching back to time immemorial. In 1884, the potlatch was banned, and in 1895, “any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony,” which would include powwows and the Sun Dance, were also are banned. Another amendment in 1914 outlawed dancing off-reserve, and in 1925, dancing was outlawed entirely.

Subsequent amendments required First Nations children to attend industrial or residential schools (1894 and 1920). It would be hard to imagine a more egregious assault on free expression than the prohibition of speaking Indigenous languages enforced in those institutions. The destructive effects of this loss of language and culture continue to reverberate across generations of survivors and their descendants.

In 1927, the Act made it illegal for First Nations peoples and communities to hire lawyers or bring about land claims against the government without the government’s consent. What more important venue could there be in a “democratic” society to express your views on important matters and seek redress to injustices than in a court of law?

This is not ancient history. As recently as 1995 Sun Dancers of the Secwepemc Nation were assaulted by the RCMP at Gustafson Lake in central BC. They recklessly employed explosive devices and reportedly fired more than 70,000 rounds in order to prevent Indigenous people from expressing their religious beliefs and practices. The fact no person was seriously hurt (the cops did murder an elder’s pet dog) is testament to their atrocious marksmanship, not any commitment of the Canadian state to protecting democratic rights.

All the colonial-settler states (the US, Australia, New Zealand) had similar laws. Furthermore, in their many colonial possessions and now neo-colonial client states the suppression of democratic freedoms remains almost universal and generally brutal. But even back home the record is far from admirable.

In 1937 the ultra-conservative Quebec government of Maurice Duplessis passed “An Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda”, nicknamed the Padlock Act. The act was inspired by Criminal Code section 98, which had been introduced in 1919, following the Winnipeg General Strike of that year. Section 98 empowered the federal government to deport non-citizens and to charge individuals with criminal conspiracy for threatening the social order or promoting revolution. The Padlock Act enabled local sheriffs (under the authority of the Quebec attorney general) to close down – and padlock the doors of – the meeting places of those who were suspected of endorsing “communism” or “bolshevism,” terms that the statute did not define. The powers of the act were so wide that it was used to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, communists, trade unionists, and anyone who was suspected of subversion.

The land of the “First Amendment” to our south saw even more extreme applications of the same approach – against the same sorts of targets – so numerous and widespread it takes entire libraries and archives to even touch on the subject. Of particular interest for our purposes might be the crushing of the IWW (the radical industrial union known as “the Wobblies”), the Palmer Raids of 1919-20 and of course the phenomenon of McCarthyism in the 1950’s. And we can’t forget the FBI’s COINTELPRO program exposed in the 1970’s that involved the infiltration and disruption of progressive movements including the assassination of key leaders of the Black community. Of course Canadians can’t be self-righteous in this regard: similar illegal activities by the RCMP, in the same period, were detailed in the 1981 report of the MacDonald Commission.

In spite of these revelations there has barely been a pause in these sorts of activities. In Canada, social justice movements ranging from opposition to the 2010 Olympics to Occupy to the G20 protests. And of course Indigenous land defenders and allies continue to be targets of illegitimate and even illegal actions by the Canadian state even as this is written.

For example, the RCMP’s 2015 Sitka Report characterized such non-violent organizations as Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and the matriarchs of the Wet’suwet’en Healing Centre as part of a network of potential “eco-terrorists”. This would be laughable if it didn’t reveal not only a mind-set primed for violent repression but a program of surveillance and infiltration that provided fodder for the over-heated imaginations of the report’s authors. And we have seen the results in the vicious raids against non-violent land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory that included the arrest of journalists and ongoing illegal harassment of residents of – and visitors to – the territory.

The point of all the above is not to rehash history. Rather, it is to point out that the suppression of free speech has everywhere and always been a weapon of elites and their governments against progressive movements. One would search in vain for any example of right-wing forces being subject to anything equivalent, in the past or currently. Just as importantly, the fight for fundamental human rights, including free speech, has always been inseparable from the fight for economic and social justice.

Where these rights have been won, even if only in part and grudgingly, they have served as important tools to inspire, strengthen and extend support for progressive, even radical, causes. In their absence activists create their own “free speech right” even if it means using underground and illegal means. It is the only way to challenge the ideological hegemony enforced by the elites and thereby lay the foundation for successful movement building.

Prior to the Second World War the most reactionary ideas experienced no impediments to propagation in print, at public events, on university campuses and from Church pulpits – or on the new medium of radio – from the most blatant promotion of racism and anti-Semitism to outright fascist propaganda. Only in the aftermath and exposure of the Nazi genocide were limits on hate speech enacted. Yet, prosecutions have been rare and limited to the most extreme advocates of Holocaust denial; in Canada the cases of Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra stand out.

In the latter case the Supreme Court upheld the prohibition of deliberate promotion of hatred of an identifiable group – he got a one-year suspended sentence; however, in Zundel’s case the court ruled in favour of the defendant, declaring that preventing the spread of “false news”, such as denying the mass murder of six million Jews in Nazi death camps, violated constitutional protection of free speech. Clearly there is no real legal threat in Canada to free speech for the right.

Given the importance of defending space for progressive movements and marginalized people to speak out and organize should anti-fascists be opposing the “platforming” of far-right figures? Do the benefits outweigh the dangers? And with indisputable evidence that sustained campaigns of hate propaganda are the indispensable foundation for genocidal violence are laws like Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022 (proposed and passed by Democrats in the wake of the mass shooting in Buffalo) the solution?

We will address those questions in the second part of this exploration.