The Price of Speech is Not Free

Canadians can justifiably demand investigative hearings into government abuse of executive power during the Covid-19 Pandemic. These hearings ought to have occurred long ago, and when they do happen, they […]
Published on February 1, 2023

Canadians can justifiably demand investigative hearings into government abuse of executive power during the Covid-19 Pandemic. These hearings ought to have occurred long ago, and when they do happen, they will undoubtedly vindicate many Canadians who suffered under the capricious, authoritarian rule of public health officials. At the core of this investigation must be an inquiry into government campaigns to manipulate public opinion.

We know that public officials misrepresented opinion as fact and covertly suppressed contrary opinion, even those expressed by the eminent scientists who crafted The Great Barrington Declaration six months into the Pandemic. The bureaucrats, who cared more for their own celebrity and power than truth, went largely unchallenged. This represents an utter failure of Charter guarantees to free speech; a failure which evidences a completely unbridled and expanding Canadian bureaucracy.

It is tempting to think that tyrannical public officials are ultimately to blame for our embarrassing foray into censorship. But if we accept this explanation prima facie, assign scorn, and then move on, we risk ignoring entirely the cultural rot that is far more insidious than any government overreach. It is we Canadians, and not government bureaucrats, who must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for censorship, because we are the last line of defense against the suppression of speech. It is we who have lost sight of or appreciation for the essential right which defines a free and democratic society: the freedom of speech carved out of centuries of bloody conflict and civil discourse.

The right which John Milton wrote of in his 17th century treatise, “Areopagitica”:

A culture of free speech is a kind of essential public good. It attacks nascent tyranny by disseminating information. Since only controversial speech attracts limitation, such exercise of free speech often comes with notoriety. Just like nearly every type of public service, free speech most often comes at a private cost to the speaker. As a matter of principle, citizens will sacrifice themselves through unpopular speech because they love their country and respect their fellow citizens.

As a prerequisite for self-sacrificing speech, rational patriots expect something in return. They need to know that enough of their fellows believe in the value of controversial speech, even if a particular opinion may be wrong. Otherwise, the social cost of speaking out or supporting those who do can be heightened by tyrants until even the most courageous are silenced. No institutional or legal protections, no matter how well designed, can induce sacrificial speech when the social value of such speech is not precious.

As Milton put it:

During the pandemic, too many Canadians stood idly by in the face of censorship. While some of this suppression came as social media meddling by public officials, most of it was perpetrated by our own neighbours—busybodies who shamed skeptics until they simply ceased asking questions. Most of us did not protest, either; it was the brave and concerted effort of a group of truckers who finally organized and executed the greatest public protest in our nation’s history, The Freedom Convoy, in the early months of 2022. Our failure to defend the public against censorship is more dangerous than the censorship itself, since it reveals that there is no longer broad agreement upon the principles underlying free speech.

It is in this context that Bill C-11, which will control what Canadians can post on line, passed second reading in the Senate on 27 October 2022. In a familiar foray into ironic virtue signalling nonsense, Prime Minister Trudeau pronounced publicly on 7 November that his focus has always been upon being a bastion for our individual rights and freedoms:

“This government will never back down from standing up for people’s rights and freedoms.”

Tell that to Tamara Lich. In his next breath, Trudeau then set out the limits to be placed upon our free speech (not his, he can call us anything he likes), which are the diametrical opposite of what giant intellects like Voltaire and Milton expressed: we are free to express our opinions so long as they do not offend others.

This is of course the radical leftist interpretation of John Stuart Mill’s famous liberal maxim that “the right of your fist ends where my nose begins.” But Mill must not have meant to say that any speech which offends is prohibited? Indeed, this begs the question of whether any meaningful conversations are even possible if we must avoid giving offense. This is the very opposite of what Voltaire expressed, i.e. that it is in tolerance of and respect for the opinions of others that we can best hope to arrive at truths about ourselves and objective reality.

Meanwhile, Trudeau brags of how Canada is leading the world in the application of artificial intelligence to cull the internet of all “offensive” speech:

“While always ensuring and defending free speech, we [himself] must make it clear that it cannot be OK to bully and attack people online…Governments and especially big technology companies need to safeguard people’s data and privacy and address online harassment and violence to ensure trust in technology.”

The translation of this confusing word salad is thus: “we, government and big tech, are your masters. We know best, and we will control what you plebeians can say on-line. We will define what terms like harassment and violence mean, but you can be certain that they will particularly apply to anything you say about us. Put simply, we are going to censor you.”

And as for that pesky Constitutional protection of free speech enshrined in s.2(b) in the increasingly irrelevant Canadian Charter of Canadian Rights & Freedoms, the Trudeau Government has an answer for that, too. Although quite ready to criticize the Ford government for invoking it to quell labour unrest in Ontario, we have seen that Trudeau has no qualms about turning to the notwithstanding clause or even declaring a faux public emergency in order abrogate once inalienable Charter rights:

“The proactive use of the notwithstanding clause suspends people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Limited speech can never be free, especially when such limits are prescribed by oppressive rulers for political ends, rather than pursuant to proper application of the Rule of Law. This was so in 1215, when the autocratic power of a tyrannical English King was made subject to the will of Parliament; it was so when John Milton addressed his great cautionary essay on limited free speech, “Aeropagitica”, to that same Parliament nearly four centuries ago—and it remains true today, right here, right now, in the once “True North, Strong and Free.”


Leighton Grey is a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the creator and host of  

Listen to the audio version of this essay here.

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