Speech. Or more specifically, the seemingly broadly held belief that free speech only applies to those you agree with.
Pride Toronto banned Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from marching in the parade. Under pressure from broad ranks of the community, PrideTO then unbanned. While most folks in the community either cheered or sighed with relief that our community was not going to have to self destruct, the broader public response has been a bit different. The Toronto Star editorial for example denounces the decision, as caving in to “politically correct bullies”. It is hard to know where to start with the G20 Summit protests this weekend. It will take Toronto a long time to recover from what happened in our city. But, one of the things that happened was the repression of dissent and protest and free speech. The police repeated blamed the people using Black Bloc tactics, said to be responsible for the outrageous damage to property across the city. And many others seemed to tar the peaceful protesters with the same feathers. But, they were simply protesting. Peacefully.
One might not agree with the messages of either QuAIA, or the G20 protesters. I for one don’t agree with QuAIA. I probably agree with some of the G20 protesters and not others (to say that there was a range of issues and opinions is an understatement). But, that is not the point. We defend free speech constitutionally for one major reason: to stop the majority from censoring the political messages that they don’t like.
Free speech is easy when you agree with the message. But, it is only real when you don’t agree with it, and you believe that it is worth protecting.
I was heartened, through both of these controversies, that many understood this. Respected leaders within the LGBT community intervened in the PrideTO fiasco, and helped it change its mind. And they did so on highly principled reasons – Pride cannot be about political censorship. The LGBT community – or at least most of it – has experienced censorship up close and personally. It was – and sometimes still is – used against us. We can’t just go do it to someone amongst us that we don’t like.
Some of the reporting and most of the twittering and general social media commenting on the G20 protests and the police reaction has also been deeply reassuring and inspiring. While many are critical of Mayor Miller for his inaction, he was highly critical of attempts to repress peaceful protest in his press conference on Saturday (he was particularly critical of the regulation passed under the Public Works Protection Act – no doubt in part because he was out of the loop). Some of the media covering the events were absolutely stars. CP24 simply shined in its coverage – talking to folks inside protest zones, and areas cordoned off by police. The blog coverage of the Toronto Star was also filled with inside stories of folks being pushed and detained for doing no more than protesting (or in some cases, just walking by). The world of Twitter tweeted with outrage at the repression of political dissent, criticizing what appeared to be the high handed and abusive actions of the police.
Toronto seems to be having a moment of reckoning – and one of the questions on the table is whether we believe in a public sphere where folks can express political messages that some of the rest of us don’t agree with. Ironically perhaps, given the absolutely horrendous actions this weekend, I am heartened that so many people shared my outrage at the repression of dissent.