IDEAS: A Canada free speech case that would scare us here in Dayton

Comedian Mike Ward
Comedian Mike Ward

If you think cancel culture is bad here, check out what’s going on in Canada.

A comic is battling a Quebec human rights tribunal’s decision that his jokes aimed at a disabled man were discriminatory under that country’s charter of human rights and freedoms. The tribunal fined the comedian, Mike Ward, and the case has now made its way to the Supreme Court.

I’m not going to repeat any of his jokes here because they are, in my book, tasteless. But that’s in my book. Other people might find them funny, ha-ha hilarious. C’est la vie, as they say in Quebec.

The tribunal ruled that Ward’s jokes infringed on the rights of dignity and honor of the disabled man, Jeremy Gabriel. The ruling said the jokes violated Gabriel’s right to equality and to be safe from discrimination, according to this report.

Canada does not have free speech rights as we know it in this country. It has “freedom of expression” under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And while the charter gives Canadians the right to “speak our mind,” that right is “not unlimited.” And the charter, under its Equality Rights section, notes that everyone should be “treated with … respect, dignity and consideration.”

So when does expression become punishable?

Ray Marcano
Ray Marcano

Noting that freedom of expression isn’t unlimited caught my eye. We think of free speech as unlimited in this country, but it’s not. While you can say whatever to want, it doesn’t mean you can do so without consequences. You can get fired from your job or ostracized for speaking your mind. And there are defamation laws (see: Dominion voting and its lawsuits).

Americans complain about cancel culture, but I see it as a self-regulating method where people need to decide, for themselves, the risk tolerance for opening their mouths.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-MO, is a perfect example.

He voted against certifying Joe Biden as the next president, which was his right. But as a result, he lost a book deal, was criticized by fellow Republicans and faced calls for his resignation.

Hawley screamed he was the victim of cancel culture when he should be embracing that the American system worked perfectly. He said and took the position he wanted. Those who didn’t agree reacted, as is their right.

Does that mean you should be careful about what you say? Yes, because words have consequences.

The debate we’re having here is an emotional one. “You can’t take action against me for what I say because that violates my free speech rights.” Nah. Not even close. It’s an argument people tend to use when they say something dumb and flail for an excuse.

The debate and court case in Canada is a dangerous one because it can potentially have a chilling effect on speech. If you can get fined for telling a joke, can you get fined for having a debate? For exchanging views a judge might find offensive?

The internet is littered with examples of people in this country who have been fired from their jobs because they’ve said stupid things (Hello, Roseanne Barr). But no one here has ever taken away the right to say those stupid things.

I’d much rather have this system instead of a judge determining what is and isn’t acceptable speech.

Ray Marcano is the interim Ideas and Voices editor for the Dayton Daily News. Contact him at raymarcanoddn@gmail.com

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