I am in something of an unusual position, being an outspoken crusader both for human rights and for free speech. It crops up in my discussions of hate speech as a free speech issue again and again. The reason why I say my position is somewhat unique is that usually those who defend absolute speech rights ally themselves on the side of anti-gay, racist and/or sexist bigots. Their position tends to be “I shouldn’t be punished for saying hateful things.” My position is a bit more nuanced – I think that the definition of ‘hate’ is imprecise, and that while we should take note of it, it is far too tempting for the state to abuse the power to criminalize unpopular speech.
A recent court case has free speech advocates salivating like starving wolves in front of a fresh kill:
A comedian who was fined by the BC Human Rights Tribunal after a confrontation with a lesbian couple at a Vancouver restaurant is appealing the decision, arguing the province’s human rights legislation shouldn’t apply to stand-up comics. The tribunal ruled in favour of Lorna Pardy, a gay woman who testified that Guy Earle shouted gay slurs and other insults at her and her girlfriend from both on and off the stage during a comedy show in 2007. Earle and the restaurant were ordered to pay a total of $22,500 in compensation.
Human Rights Tribunals are the bane of the bigoted set. They are intended to find a way to balance respect for human rights with civil liberties, and are empowered to levy fines against people found guilty of discriminating, propagating hatred, or otherwise violating people’s charter rights in ways that aren’t expressly criminal. While they are an imperfect tool, they represent an attempt to uphold the rights of individuals to live free of persecution and hatred.
The reason why my fellow unrestricted speech advocates are so hot about this particular case is because on the surface, it reads like the story of a comedian who made some off-colour comments about lesbians in the context of a comedy performance, and who was subsequently brought up on charges by some overly-sensitive bleeding heart liberal lesbos in the audience who can’t take a joke. ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ has been the cry. ‘How can we allow these Tribunals to bulldoze over the rights of performers to make jokes? Can we only tell knock-knock jokes from now on?’
Hey guys, ‘Knock, knock”
A maniac that went on a hatred-fueled tirade against two women in the audience that went well beyond the boundaries of his act. A maniac that went on to bodily assault those women when they tried to stand up for themselves. A maniac that completely lost his cool and continued to berate them after his stage show had finished.
Yeah, not so funny a joke now, is it?
If the case had merely been an echo of Michael Richards’ racist tirade against black people, or Tracey Morgan’s recent statement where he said he would stab his son to death if he (the son) came out as gay, then I’d be decrying this decision right along with the rest of my fellow speech defenders. This isn’t that, though. This is the case of a guy who wasn’t content to simply humiliate a pair of women who he claimed were heckling him (this is disputed by the women, who say he began harassing them for the arch-crime of kissing each other), but went on a rampage against them even after he was off stage.
My fellow speechies are holding Mr. Earle up as an example of the overreach of the Tribunal process, but if anything it shows that there are times where clearly some kind of intervention is needed. What occurred at the restaurant was far beyond what one would consider reasonable fare for a comedy show, where the abuse begins and ends on stage. Guy Earle is not the victim of an oversensitive system that bends to every errant whine from a minority group – he’s the perpetrator of a shocking and unacceptable verbal assault that crossed the line from joke to serious when he put down the microphone.
I am not sure what mental deficiency it is that makes my colleagues unable to understand nuance and irony, but it has them hitching their wagon to a horse that isn’t so much dead as it is running in the opposite direction they want to go. If the battle is indeed to bring the free speech argument into the public consciousness – to sell the idea of unrestricted free speech rights to the marketplace of ideas then they’ve picked a real stinker of a human being to make their/our case on.
That being said, if this were a simple free speech issue, I’d side with Mr. Earle in a heartbeat, no matter how despicable a human being I might think he is. What he said on stage may have been defensible speech, but the extent to which he allowed it to go is indefensible conduct. Speech, no matter how hateful, is crucial to the conduct of our society – parasites like Guy Earle undermine the very idea of free speech.
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