Problems with free expression

The U of T blackface case raises important questions about the complex nature of freedom.

Elsewhere, my fellow blogger Scott Dobson-Mitchell notes the irony whereby in one comment I acknowledge that I occassionally edit comments on my blogs, while in another comment, I defend the right to free expression.

I’d be flattered that someone is reading me so closely, even if it is only other OnCampus bloggers, except that I’m pretty sure Dobson-Mitchell thinks I’m a douchebag. To wit:

I believe that racism, even those acts of racism that an educated, white, university professor of English literature deems to be otherwise, continues to be a “real problem” in today’s world.

Well, of course, racism itself is a real problem, but  is the writer really suggesting that some guys wearing poorly thought-out costumes to a halloween party is an important issue? Compared to what? If Dobson-Mitchell can’t find plenty more serious problems than that in the world, he’s not paying attention.

As for the supposed contradiction over free speech, my colleague, I would say, misunderstands the freedom part of the expression. The right to free speech does not guarantee the right of anyone to say anything anywhere anytime. I am free to write a book, but publishers are free to refuse to publish it. I am free to speak my mind about politics, but Global Television is not bound to put me on the air. A reader may think that I’m an asshole, but unless he finds a nicer word for it, it’s not going in the comments on my blog; they call them moderated comments for a reason. He can call me immoderate names on his own blog. What the right to free speech should guarantee is that third parties should not be able to intervene and force others to speak and think as they would prefer.

Which brings us back to the halloween costumes. In my view, these guys had the right to wear their ridiculous costumes, and the party organizers would have been within their rights to say, “sorry guys, not at this party.” But where the whole thing changes is when some other group of people comes along — government, special interests, whoever — and starts holding meetings, demanding public apologies and the like. Then we start to move away from people choosing for themselves as to what they find offensive, and we move towards the policing of free action and opinion — and that becomes a very real problem indeed.

PS: why does Dobson-Mitchell point out my own race in his comments? What difference does it make that I am white? I certainly hope that he does not mean to imply that someone like me could not be expected to understand the issues involved.