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Free Speech Protects All Speech
October 16, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

For a vivid illustration of the hypocrisy of the Left’s response to the United States War on Terrorism, one needs only to consider the controversy sparked earlier this month by Sunera Thobani, an assistant professor of women's studies at the University of British Columbia.

On October 1st, the Tanzanian-born Thobani grabbed headlines by denouncing the "bloodthirsty" U.S. government as "the most dangerous global force" with a "foreign policy...soaked in blood." Thobani labeled the War as "patriarchal racist violence" conducted to colonize colored people.

In response to these remarks, Canadian authorities are now investigating Thobani for hate speech. Under Section 319(1) of Canada's Criminal Code, she faces a jail sentence if convicted of inciting public hatred of an "identifiable group" — in this case, Americans — that "is likely to lead to a breach of the peace."

The situation drips with irony. For years, Thobani, a Leftist feminist, has called for the suppression of patriarchal, white male, "racist" views (such as speaking well of Western culture). Now, she needs to defend herself against those who would perhaps restrict her speech by penalizing her for her public statements. Suddenly Thobani and her defenders have discovered the principle of free speech.

The action being taken against Thobani is a matter of free speech, but not in the sense that she would have you believe.

First, the Women's Conference at which Thobani attacked Americans was financed by $80,000 from the Canadian government — the Canadian taxpayers. Hedy Fry, the Canadian Secretary of State (Status of Women) sat in the cheering, applauding audience and indicated no disagreement with Thobani's views. Whatever word describes a viewpoint financed by tax dollars and presided over by a high-ranking government official, "censorship" isn't it.

"Censorship" would apply if charges of hate speech are actually brought against Thobani. But this is unlikely. Such prosecutions are rare and the law exempts most statements made on issues relevant to public interest.

All that Thobani currently confronts is a private backlash against her tax-financed, seemingly state-sanctioned beliefs. Indeed, the unusual step of announcing an accusation before a charge has been brought is probably a retroactive attempt by the government to distance itself from Thobani.

Yet Thobani and her admirers would like to paint her as a martyr to the anti-American cause.

Consider the reaction of the university. Barry McBride, academic vice-president of UBC, defended Thobani on the grounds of academic freedom. "I'm not here to judge on the content...but to defend her as an academic and her...academic freedom," he stated. Tineke Hellwig, chair of UBC's women studies program, declared, "It's essential that people see different sides to an issue." Thobani herself declared, "They are trying to silence dissent in this country."

The UBC as a bastion of academic freedom and a protector of dissent? James Steiger, Professor of Psychology at UBC, offers a slightly different perspective.

Steiger became a flashpoint for feminist wrath in 1994 when he published a critique of a UBC survey of 344 tenure track female faculty members that concluded that the environment was "chilly" for women. The university began to consider reforms to correct the perceived problem.

So Steiger tested the survey and found, among other observations, that the researcher had not interviewed male faculty members. It was therefore not possible to conclude that women were any more "chilled" than men. The harshest passage in the mildly-worded article called the study "biased, not particularly competent, and of little use."

The next issue of Ubyssey, the student newspaper, lambasted Steiger. A university feminist was quoted as saying the article was "the language of violence used to express men's psychological irritation."

Shortly thereafter, "Chilly Climate Week" was launched to support women and minorities. (Men were excluded even from the definition of "chilly climate.") Thobani gave the keynote speech, which Ubyssey described as "a stinging indictment" of how universities are "oppressive toward women and minorities." Singling out white male professors, she placed much of the blame for this on a new "professional anti-feminist class" who used "freedom of speech" as a vehicle for propagating this oppression.

"Thobani derided freedom of speech as a device for keeping white males in power," Steiger said. Explaining the feminist position at UBC, he said, "Men are guilty oppressors, women helpless victims, so any solution must be imposed on men from above."

Nevertheless, UBC's McBride publicly defends Thobani on the basis of the same free speech she attacks when practiced by others. And Left voices in the press accuse Thobani's critics of fomenting a new "McCarthyism" — the same term Steiger used to describe Thobani’s own tactics at UBC.

Prosecuting Thobani under hate speech laws has a morbid justice about it. Feminists and the Left have championed these sorts of laws to stifle "offensive" words and attitudes toward minorities and women. But stifling anyone's speech cannot be tolerated by a free society.

Fortunately, a more effective remedy exists.

Thobani has been spreading intolerance at tax-payer expense since at least as early as 1993, when she became president of Canada's National Action Committee on the Status of Women. She became notorious for driving the white leadership out of power and for shifting the focus of Canadian feminism away from women and on to race.

Taxpayers should not fund Thobani's hate crusade. She should be forced to support herself in the capitalist world she so loudly decries — a world to which she freely immigrated as an adult.

Then she would learn that her ideas, to recall the words of Steiger, are "biased, not particularly competent, and of little use."

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