Freedom to preach
In early October, the long-time pro-life and pro-family activist Bill Whatcott got his proverbial day in court. Whatcott, who had been brought before the Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal in 2006 over his practice of distributing flyers about the dangers of abortion and homosexuality, was ordered to pay a $17,500 fine and to cease publicly spreading his beliefs about homosexuality. Whatcott’s case has now wended its way to the highest court of the land, and a decision in the case is expected in six to nine months.
Whatcott has won some unlikely allies in the press. An Oct. 13 editorial in the Toronto Star opined that, “Publishing offensive material, however obnoxious, shouldn’t get people dragged before tribunals where they have to spend a fortune defending themselves, and face heavy penalties…. Odious as Whatcott’s views are, he has a Charter right to express them.” The Star believes that, while Whatcott’s opinions are hateful, they do not rise to the level of “hate speech” and, as such, should not be censored. Channeling the spirit of Voltaire, they disagree with what he says, but will defend his right to say it.
If the right they were defending were not so basic nor the correct conclusion so obvious, the Star’s editorial board would deserve praise. But we can hardly give plaudits for their endorsement of such a basic democratic right, especially when their support of that right is so anemic and embarrassed. Indeed, the Star’s defence of Whatcott’s right is only advanced under the aegis of the odious: it is because his opinions are already affixed with a warning label that they can circulate in society.
What the Star is really defending is not Whatcott’s right to free speech, but rather his right to lose the argument in which he may be graciously permitted to participate. The very punitive process in which Whatcott in enmeshed – defending himself from heavy fines and illegal censorship imposed by a Human Rights Tribunal – has already undermined the very rights he is claiming before the high court. Regardless of the opinion which the Supreme Court hands down, the climate of free expression in Canada has already been fatally compromised. The Star’s defense of Whatcott resembles nothing so much as Pilate’s plan to have Christ freed after a flogging; he has been sufficiently punished for his innocence, and his rights can be defended as an afterthought.
But free speech which is conceded only after an ordeal of legal bullying is not worthy of the name – and it would be a mistake to separate this ugly process from the apparent principle which is at stake. Indeed, Whatcott’s actual “speech” can be tolerated only after it has been pre-interpreted by such quasi-legal entities as a human rights tribunal. Exposed to a legal test, which it finally fails, Whatcott’s opinions can be permitted because they do not pass a certain threshold of “hate.” But without such scrutiny, his opinions could not be allowed.
Of other cases involving the illegitimate and undemocratic persecution of free expression – such as those of Fr. Alphonse de Valk, Mark Steyn, Erza Levant, or Scott Brockie – it has been observed that the process itself is the punishment. In Whatcott’s case, however, the process is not only the punishment but the point. The legal circus of Whatcott’s case is itself a signal to onlookers about the meaning of his message: while it is permissible, it remains on the same spectrum as intolerable “hate speech.”
Yet Whatcott’s message is not one of hate at all. Hate speech is something quite specific, and one needs look no further than the screed of some radical clerics who advocate the beheading of homosexuals to see the difference between the two. Whatcott’s message, instead, is one of love. He simply affirms, from personal experience, that the homosexual lifestyle does not give the fulfillment and happiness which it seems to offer to people who feel attractions to members of the same sex: it offers only emptiness, emotional harm, and a myriad of health risks. Whatcott is, thus, not exercising his freedom of speech, but his freedom to preach; indeed, because his message is motivated by love, it is not his freedom of expression, but rather his freedom of religion, which has been curtailed in the unjust process in which he has bravely persevered for five years.
Christ’s catalogue of Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount reaches a surprising conclusion, but it is one which is explained by Whatcott’s legal travails: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:11-12) After declaring the consolations which will come to the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, those thirsting for justice and making peace, Christ assures his disciples that living this lifestyle of love will attract the hated of the world. The Gospel brings peace which passes understanding, but it makes war with the wisdom of the time. Bill Whatcott’s case is not only a powerful illustration of this truth, but it is also yet another reminder that the most maligned Charter right in Canada is the freedom to live Christ’s Gospel, and to proclaim it to those who would rather not hear.