The Editor’s Desk: Freedom of speech explained

Freedom of speech is still guaranteed, but it doesn’t mean freedom from consequences

A lot of people are talking about freedom of speech in the wake of the decision by Sportsnet to fire Don Cherry after he made a thinly-veiled attack on immigrants to Canada during his “Coach’s Corner” segment of Hockey Night in Canada on Nov. 9. Sadly, a lot of these people seem to have no idea what “freedom of speech” means and entails.

First, some context. Here’s what Cherry said that got him a permanent trip to the sin bin:

“You know, I was talking to a veteran, I said ‘I’m not going to run the poppy thing anymore,’” Cherry began. “Because what’s the sense? I live in Mississauga, nobody wears … uh, very few people wear a poppy.”

After claiming that “nobody” in downtown Toronto wears poppies, Cherry continued, “Now you go to the small cities, and you know, the rows and rows … you people love … they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

He doesn’t come right out and say that it’s immigrants he’s referring to as not respecting Remembrance Day and Canada’s veterans, but his words (“they come here”; “they love our way of life”; “your way of life that you enjoy in Canada”; even the “milk and honey” allusion, which refers to the land promised to Abraham and his descendants after they left Egypt) all invoke immigrants.

I’m not going to get into the muddy waters of the fact that the word “immigrant” conjures up, to too many people, those who aren’t white. That’s dog whistle stuff, of a type that has become all-too-sadly common in recent years. What I do want to do, however, is talk about freedom of speech.

“What happened to freedom of speech? Don has a right to his view,” read one Facebook comment on a story about Cherry’s firing. The answer is that nothing happened to freedom of speech. Cherry was free to say what he said, and he said it on national television, and he won’t be going to jail, or sent to a gulag. Freedom of speech is alive and well in Canada, and Don Cherry is proof of that. I’d also add “Of course Don has a right to his view! We all do! That’s what Canadian soldiers have fought and died for!”

So nothing has happened to freedom of speech here, and we can all still say what we want, even if it is ignorant, hateful, ill-considered, or worse. The thing is, however, that “freedom of speech” does not then lead to “freedom from consequences”. It’s not a “get out of jail free” card. If you say something ignorant, hateful, ill-advised, or worse, others are equally free to disagree with you, and say as much.

And there might well be consequences, depending on what you said. You might lose friends over it, or family members might prefer not to speak to you. They’re free to do that. And if your employer decides that what you said was particularly egregious, and they no longer want to be associated with you, they can fire you. They’re free to do that, too.

See how that works? We all have freedom of speech. Others have the freedom to decide how they want to treat us after we exercise that freedom of speech. Pretty simple, really. Consequences.

“Don has the right to voice his opinion. Is our right to speak even being questioned now?” said another Facebook commentator. No. No one’s right to speak is being questioned, and of course Cherry had the right to (and did) voice his opinion. A lot of people — including his employer — found that opinion offensive, and he’s paid the price. That’s what can happen with free speech: you get to say what you want, but if enough people find it hateful and offensive, it can come back to bite you.

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