In a free society there is no right not to be offended

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law
Lawyers of a certain age will remember a case of the British Columbia Court of Appeal called Vander Zalm v. Times Publishers, where then-Minister of Human Resources for B.C., Bill Vander Zalm, was the subject of a scathing political cartoon drawn by Robert Bierman, depicting Vander Zalm happily pulling the wings off flies.

Bierman, through the magic of satirical cartooning, was illustrating his view that Vander Zalm took pleasure in making cuts to welfare and other social programs.

Although Vander Zalm prevailed at the trial level, then-chief justice Nathan Nemetz overturned the trial court judge’s finding that the cartoon was libelous. The case is one of many touchstones for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the freedom to insult, and the freedom to draw insulting cartoons; this, two years before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a debate a few years ago, the British Parliament attempted to legislate that an “insult” was grounds for arrest and punishment. An atheist pensioner who placed a small sign in the window of his home saying, “religions are fairy stories for adults,” was told by police he could be arrested if he refused to remove the poster.

An Oxford student was arrested for saying to a policeman, “excuse me do you realize your horse is gay?” The offending section was used to issue a summons to a 16-year-old protester for peacefully holding a placard that read, “Scientology is not a religion — it is a dangerous cult.”

Rowan Atkinson, acting less like Mr. Bean and more like Blackadder, led the charge against the section, he said: “the clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as an insult. Ridicule is easily construed as an insult. Sarcasm, unfavorable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult.”

He went on: “The simple truth is that in a free society there is no right not to be offended.”

The murder of at least 13 cartoonists, writers, and police officers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week has infuriated and incensed much of the civilized world. I say “civilized” deliberately.

As much as The Guardian suggests we should resist the “class of civilizations” narrative, I am more inclined to agree with Jon Stewart and others, who say there is Team Civilization on the one hand, and the uncivilized murderous jihadist bastards (my words) on the other. These are people who would cut off my right to write satiric opinion columns (likely at the neck).

So I do see this as a class of civilizations between people who cherish freedom, democracy, pluralism (and the future), and those who don’t.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “Today’s murders are part of a larger confrontation, not between civilizations . . . but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.”

After they finished murdering the writers, cartoonists, and the security police who guarded the building, they screamed, “We have killed Charlie Hebdo. . . . We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” for, among other things publishing unflattering cartoons depicting Muhammad.

Now on first blush, I would think that God or Allah or Yahweh, or Jehova, or Elohim, or for that matter, the Almighty Bob, is fully able to smite anyone He or She wishes to smite, for whatever reason.

I mean really, if you can create the universe in the blink of an eye, surely you can fire lightning bolts at infidels, unbelievers, and naysayers; cause a localized flood to wash into a satirist’s basement; turn heathens into pillars of salt (or locusts!); kill their first-born sons; or otherwise remove those who draw cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad from the face of the earth by an act of omnipotent will! You’re all-powerful, remember? You can look after yourself. What do you need three nut bars with AK-47s for?

So it seems to me that anyone who thinks they’re carrying out God’s will by killing a bunch of cartoonists, writers, and satirists, obviously doesn’t think that God is powerful enough to defend (and avenge) Herself.

George Packer in The New Yorker links it to western values: “The murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.”

In all the media that I have been reading over the past few days about the events in Paris, including the various cartoons that had been drawn by the deceased cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or which have been drawn in support of the satirical publication, one has caught my attention more than anything else. It was in The Onion (another satirical magazine), where Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Ganesha were depicted in an orgy of sex of “considerable depravity” (use your imagination). The cartoon is rude, shocking, disgusting, and disrespectful.

But as The Onion said: “no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened. Not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.”

In 2005, one of Canada’s national newspapers ran a spirited defence of free speech in light of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. It was a thoughtful, well-argued, and passionate defence of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to insult. Except that the paper refused to print the cartoons! Good grief. They’re cartoons, not bullets.

Even on the day of the massacre in Paris, the CBC journalistic standards and practices director, David Studer instructed all CBC personnel as follows: “many people are arguing that the violent actions in Paris today invite — some would say almost require — others to show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo by reprinting the offending cartoons. . . . I understand the impulse but don’t buy the logic. We wouldn’t have published these images before today — not out of fear, but out of respect for the beliefs and sensibilities of the mass of Muslim believers. Why would the actions of the gang of violent thugs force us to change that position? This is not the time for emotional responses or bravado. There are better ways to honor and stand beside our fellow journalists.”

But as a friend at the CBC just told me: “No there aren’t. Print the cartoons. Because if we don’t, the terrorists win.”

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