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OPINION: Harmful speech is not free speech

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With all due respect to Joanne White and her late father, Judge Walder White, it is not the case that rights and freedoms arise in law of their own accord and don’t have existence outside the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, venerable document though it is. Any particular right or freedom exists first as a concept in the minds, most usually, of those who are oppressed or marginalized, and become laws through their active lobbying, protests, demonstrations and non-compliance, often at the expense of their personal  freedom, well-being and even lives. The Charter outlines what has to be further defined as being implied by it, and that is a long political process. And while those who offend laws concerning rights and freedoms can be prosecuted formally in civil and criminal courts, informal sanctions have as much if not more power to enforce established laws or concepts surrounding freedoms and rights.

LGBTQ persons have won many rights in law but as importantly, they have also won in the court of public opinion: they cannot be denied services, private or public, but those who oppose them for religious or other reasons are seen as regressive and lose status among the general public. No one wants to admit to being homophobic, and that is all to the good.

But there is a minority group whose rights are constantly challenged with impunity under the banner of ‘free speech’. Because of a ruling by the Alberta Court of Appeal the University of Alberta has had to roll back on its position concerning the anti-abortion campaign on university property: it must allow the use of posters depicting aborted fetuses and anti-abortion propaganda without penalty even though vigorous and disruptive opposition is a likely outcome.

This is presented as an expression of the right to free speech, the only exceptions to which are hate speech and speech directly advocating violent action.
But reproductive health, including abortion rights, not privileges, are implied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and defended by precedents in law.

This campaign cannot stop abortion, and really is not intended to. Its intent can reasonably be implied then, to be only harassment of women who have taken this option, or who intend to do so. Some of these women will be victims of rape or incest, two categories of particularly vulnerable women, although all women in need of an abortion are to a lesser or greater extent vulnerable.

Some sort of harm to these women is a very real possibility, and that seems to be the intent. It might well result in an emotionally and/or physically detrimental delay, especially where rape and incest are factors. It might well cause undue emotional suffering after the fact, and that this is the very intent is a reasonable assumption.

These considerations would seem to place this type of anti-abortion campaign in the category of hate speech. Hate speech is not legitimate or defensible, but an exception to the right of Charter protected free speech.

Doris Wrench Eisler, St. Albert




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