Some Speech is Freer than Others

Remember my post on Bill Nevins' lawsuit against his New Mexico schoolboard for firing him, supposedly for one of his student's anti-war poetry. Although some of the details of the case may not be as clear-cut as we first thought, the case remains active.

My father heard a report that suggested that a court found Bill Nevins' firing to be spurious and ordered his full reinstatement, but I suspect he misconstrued a report on the filing of the complaint with the New Mexico 2nd District Court back in September 2003. In October 2003, the matter was moved to a federal court.

Finding nothing on the Net, I finally e-mailed some of the addresses found on the sites relating to the case. I heard from Mr. Nevins himself that the matter is still before the federal court and the trial will be held in November 2004.

Fundraising activities are still being conducted by the Alliance for Academic Freedom.

The wheels of justice move slowly indeed.

There has been a fair amount of commentary over the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to uphold the limitations on third-party organizations' campaign activities during elections. Thanks to the court's decision, a law passed in the late-1990s which limited political spending by organizations not covered by the rules and regulations of Elections Canada (read, any organized group other than the political parties), remains in place, preventing these groups from spending more than $3000 per riding or $150,000 nationally during an election campaign to try and influence its outcome.

The reaction by some commentators has been, predictably, intense. I am not among those commentators. I realize that freedom of speech is not to be taken lightly or for granted, and I will happily discuss the amount of the limits the law imposes, but the intent of the original law was sound, and I firmly believe that it protects, not harms, our democratic society.

This law is not an attack on freedom of speech in this country. After all, it has to be asked: has the Supreme Court demanded that the president for the National Citizens Coalition be jailed for his views? Have NCC supporters walking through neighbourhoods in peaceful demonstrations been attacked by police in riot gear? Indeed, will the NCC website, featuring all of the materials it has supporting its points of view, be shut down for the duration of the election? Does the Supreme Court even recommend that employers of NCC members fire said members on the most spurious of grounds?

The answer to all of these questions is, of course, "no". Moreover, nothing prevents Canadians from phoning up these third-party agencies and asking for the information. The only way you can argue that there is an attack here is if you believe that freedom of speech is only meaningful if it is paid to be carried on the public airwaves. If this is the case, then we have to point out that there are millions of Canadians (not to mention Americans) out there with no meaningful freedom of speech.

Some of those railing against the Supreme Court of Canada's judicial limitation of third-party advertising during election campaigns are, in their own way, seeking to impose limits on freedom of speech through economic grounds. I have seen no campaigns by these groups to speak up for the oppressed majority who can't express themselves to the degree of those who have the resources to flood the airways with advertising. The silence on this front suggests that some of the groups railing against this decision are less concerned about the state of freedom of speech in Canada than they are their ability to compel Canadians to listen. The law is not perfect, but it goes some distance in ensuring that most ideas have equal weight during an election campaign. And while I agree that more should be done to give more people a chance to be heard during an election, one of the ways to not do this is to make the presence of money the ultimate gatekeeper in this democracy. It may seem to be a paradox, and it is, but ensuring that everybody has equal access to the process is the best way to protect democracy.

The situation is not unlike what used to exist until recently in Vancouver's municipal politics. Until the new city council installed a ward system, councillors were chosen at large from votes across the city. Those ten candidates who received the most votes were put on council.

At-large election systems and a ward systems are both democratic systems but, in practise, the at-large system was used for undemocratic purposes. Because candidates were chosen in city-wide ballots, results tended to favour candidates from the more affluent neighbourhoods, whose residents were more likely to vote than those from impoverished neighbourhoods. The ward system, which was fought bitterly by proponents of the old system, at least guarantees one or two seats for those citizens in the impoverished areas.

Now some might say that it is the impoverished citizens' fault that they didn't vote and thus their voices weren't heard. Some might say that the affluent residents voted more, so they should be heard more, and I do agree that it is deplorable that not enough people get out to vote. However, the fact remains that for many elections, the Vancouver establishment used the at-large system as an excuse to ignore the needs of its impoverished residents. The system that appeared more democratic on the surface had some decidedly undemocratic results.

Elections will continue to be fought and won on the issues. Voters will continue to make up their own minds about who to vote for. But ensuring that everybody has equal opportunity to contribute to the chatter is what true freedom of speech is about, and I am more confident, not less, in the health of our democratic society after the supreme court's decision.

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