Freedom of speech is not negotiable

By Chris Morrison

Free speech is something we, as Canadians, take for granted. With everything going on in the world, it is important that we are truly free to think and say what we want.

Earlier this month, author Timothy Findley spoke at a downtown luncheon as part of the University of Calgary’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Visiting Writer lecture series. Attending said luncheon were various sundry "oilpatch representatives." From their reactions to Mr. Findley’s comments, I guess they were expecting some sort of speech on the state of contemporary Canadian fiction or the role of industry in subsidising the arts. While these are both worthy topics, and had Mr. Findley’s speech came before September 11 one of them may well have been the focus of his midday dissertation, he opted for a more contemporary subject.

The Governor General award winner and current Distinguished Visiting Writer for the Markin-Flanagan program chose to talk about terrorism. Not the terrorism committed by those with just guns and bombs, but by those with wells and suits on top of the guns and bombs. He stated, more or less, that the quest for profits among oil and gas companies, combined with their inaction on environmental matters, makes them no better than those who kill thousands by crashing planes into buildings.

He did not mention Shell’s involvement in the execution of Ogoni protesters in Nigeria. He did not mention Calgary-based Talisman Energy’s funding of the Sudanese government’s war efforts against its own citizens. He did not mention the residents of the south Calgary community of Lynnview Ridge who have become sick because there was once an oil refinery where their houses now stand and the soil is toxic. No, he was just dealing with the environmental issues.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Mr. Findley or not, he has the right say what he believes. Those who disagreed should have voiced their objections by pointing out the errors in his argument and proposing a counter-argument, not by shouting "humbug" during Findley’s speech. (Jesus tap-dancing Christ! Who says humbug anymore?)

Most people define free speech as the freedom to say or write whatever one wants without fear of reprisal. Granted one should not go around libelling and slandering others pell-mell and willy-nilly, but it goes farther than that. It’s not just the freedom to spout off popular sentiment, it’s also the freedom to say unpopular things. Like linking petroleum companies with terrorism.

As members of a society that values freedom of speech and expression, we have the responsibility to defend the right of people to say these unpopular things. In these uncertain times, we must defend our freedoms. This means more than simply bombing third world countries back into the stone age. It means standing up for what we, as members of a free society, hold most dear and not letting anyone–not some paranoid politician or a jingoist journalist–take that away. The freedom to say what we think and feel–that is something to defend.

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