Debates on ideas should be open
February 9, 2005
Whenever you hear a politician say something like "Clearly we have free speech, but ... " is a good time to start worrying. Anyone who utters that little half-sentence — and it doesn't really matter what follows the ominous "but" — is at the very least hinting we have just a bit too much free speech for his (or her) liking.
It's even more worrying when the politician making the comment is Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, a man with enough power to actually try to limit that freedom. And he seemed to suggest he was thinking of doing just that this week. He should know better.
The issue prompting this ministerial menace to free speech is Cotler's bill to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, and the opposition to it. That opposition has become quite spirited in the last few weeks, which is just what you should expect in an open society: It's a serious issue that deserves a wide public debate.
The problem for Cotler and the bill's supporters, however, is not all the opposition is purely domestic. Groups in the United States — notably the very Catholic Knights of Columbus and the very Protestant Focus on the Family — have been helping out their Canadian counterparts with money and materiel.
This is all perfectly legal, but proponents of same-sex marriage, who apparently aren't getting any support from their friends south of the border, claim it's unfair. Disturbingly, Cotler appears to agree with them. "We want to protect the political equities in terms of the marketplace of ideas," he told The Gazette's Elizabeth Thompson.
There's a promise to chill the blood. Government regulation of the marketplace of ideas is even more odious than government regulation of the marketplace of goods and services. The last such effort resulted in the law banning third-party advertising during election campaigns, which remains a repugnantly paternalistic piece of legislation despite the Supreme Court's blessing.
That law and Cotler's concern about the opposition to his same-sex-marriage bill arise from the same condescending conviction Canadians will be duped by big spenders, that Canadian public opinion will be "mortgaged to the highest bidder," as Cotler so clunkily put it this week.
Canadians are smarter than that. In fact, foreign intervenors should be aware their efforts can very easily backfire, as England's Guardian newspaper discovered when it had its readers write to voters in Ohio last fall, urging them to vote against President George W. Bush. On polling day, the target county became one of Bush's best.
The remedy to free speech is, as always, more free speech. If the U.S. Knights of Columbus want to back their Canadian brothers, let them. And the same goes for ACT UP, Focus on the Family and the Gay and Lesbian Activists' Alliance. Such help should be up front and public, not secret. But beyond that, the marketplace of ideas should be wide open to all. In fact, it's time Cotler's boss, Prime Minister Paul Martin, opened that free vote in Parliament to members of his cabinet.
The Gazette supports Cotler's bill, but it also supports lively debate — the more open the better.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005
Originally, but no longer, at The Gazette (Montreal)