Speak up for Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression is at once a very simple and extremely difficult concept to come to grips with.

Ursula Brigl

ou may disagree with this article. That’s okay, because freedom of expression is a fundamental right under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embedded in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

It makes it possible for me to share my ideas with others and for others to listen and respond, whether it’s to agree or dissent. The important point is that we are thinking and talking about things that will shape the world we live in.

Freedom of expression makes it possible for people to talk openly with each other, to agree or disagree, instead of using fists and guns to settle differences. There are many examples in history of ideas presented as absolute truths that turned out to be wrong. These ideas came into the world when thinkers, and religious and political leaders declared their beliefs and convictions. Some people thought about these things critically, gave their frank opinions and dared to speak out: the earth is not flat, the sun does not orbit the earth, no one group of people is inherently superior to another. This gave others the confidence to add their voice to the conversation and over time what once seemed a radical new way of thinking became the norm.

Sometimes we might wish that people didn’t exercise their right to free speech quite so freely, that what they say is repugnant and offensive. But where do we draw the line? And we do, as a society, draw those lines. Most of us in Canada would agree that the right to freedom of expression does not extend to things like speech that wilfully promotes hatred, incites violence or causes harm; libel or slander; the distribution of obscene material.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine when the line between legal and illegal forms of expression gets crossed. Other challenges are that the line shifts over time as we think and talk about ideas, and that it varies from country to country. What is perfectly acceptable to post online in Canada could land you in jail in China, even though both countries state they uphold people’s right to the freedom of expression.

The greatest threat to freedom of expression is ignorance. When people lack the skills to critically assess what they hear, see or read; when they unquestioningly accept a statement simply because it fits into their own world view; when they buy into one person’s promise of a better life simply because it lays out a clear path that cuts through conflicting messages; when they are afraid to speak their mind; that is when things can go horribly wrong.

It lays the groundwork for dictators such as Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin to come to power. They knew that keeping people in the dark, keeping them from openly disagreeing with the regime, was the only way they could keep an iron grip on power.

Yet even with the threat of arrest, torture and death both for themselves and their families, dissenters found ways to express themselves and eventually bring about change.

You may well say this is heady stuff, but why is a library concerning itself with it? At their core, libraries exist to provide everyone with the opportunity to freely access information and different perspectives on issues so that they can think, discuss, make up their own mind about what’s going on in the world and decide how they can help build a better future, for themselves or others.

Freedom of expression is at once a very simple and extremely difficult concept to come to grips with. Yet we need to exercise this right regularly and thoughtfully every day to create the world we want to live in.

If you are interested in becoming involved visit the Cranbrook Social Planning Society Facebook page www.facebook.com/CranbrookSocialPlanning/ where meeting details and activities will be posted. The November meeting of the Society is scheduled for Monday, Nov.21, starting at 10 am at the United Church on 12th Avenue downtown. Join us to learn of community services, activities and ways you may wish to be involved.