Fields of Grey

Is it too graphic? Too offensive? Let’s explore the limits to freedom of expression.

I was sitting in my politics tutorial one Tuesday, doodling, while the rest of the class debated Canadian refugee policy. Someone suggested Trudeau wasn’t doing enough to help Syrians combat the PTSD of war, while another remarked it was more important to help them integrate into Canadian society.

Then, an outburst from the back: “I think they should just go back home. Like I don’t understand why they’re voluntarily coming here and then complain –”

Being lumped together in the same tutorial as Tom (not his real name, obviously) for some time now, I was well-versed with his right-leaning political views and sheer ignorance. He seemed like the type of person who would wear a “Make America Great Again” cap to the women’s march, and then wonder why people were booing him.

My TA was quick to cut him off mid-sentence, while the rest of us stared at him blankly.  Tom didn’t care for political correctness, and although this can be refreshing at times; coming from him, it only reeked of bad judgement. And while I was glad my TA got Tom to stop ranting, that tutorial got me thinking about the value of dissent.

Sure, his comments were offensive and ignorant, but he had every right to voice them. Why was he then cut-off mid-thought? In a society as open as ours that basically enshrines free speech, making room for dissent is what forces us to poke free of our own opinionated bubbles.

Yet some would argue that my TA did the right thing that day, citing the hate laws and “reasonable limits” of speech preserved in the Charter. Where do we draw the line when it comes to freedom of speech or freedom of the press? Should lines be drawn in the first place? Navigating this field of grey dragged me through the streets of Ryerson University, and then back a couple of years to France...

Bloody fetuses go on display

At least Facebook has a blur option.

We’ve seen them countless times on our way rushing to class or grabbing a bite to eat with friends. The anti-abortion protestors on Gould Street make an appearance every few weeks – explicit poster boards in hand, smeared with pictures of bloody dismembered fetuses. Let’s just say you probably wouldn’t want to be tasked with transporting them on the TTC at rush hour.

Graphic is a generous understatement for what these pictures depict – so much so that Facebook automatically blurs them. But maybe that’s the point – we don’t exist in the online space.

 Photo courtesy of Kevin John Siazen/The Ryersonian

Photo courtesy of Kevin John Siazen/The Ryersonian

“Abortion protests itself,” said Isaac Longworth, an active volunteer with Show the Truth Canada, an anti-abortion movement that spreads its message via impromptu sidewalk protests and posters.

Anti-abortion posters take advantage of the fact that Canadian society is not a private corporation – there are no blur options. And given the nature of these pictures, they can be hard to ignore, explaining why many consider it a violation of their rights to have them thrust down their throats involuntarily. But Longworth begs to differ.

“If you’re old enough to have an abortion, you’re old enough to see it,” he said.

He dispelled the myth that posters were unscientific or exaggerations of aborted fetuses – each poster is given the seal of approval by a registered gynecologist who performs numerous abortions each day. It seems ironic that an anti-abortion group would seek help from those that facilitate abortion itself, but that’s besides the point.

I asked Longworth if he thought the explicit pictures were being forced onto onlookers. He thought for a moment before answering that he, like all Canadians, was simply exercising his right to freedom of expression. Just because the posters were uncomfortable for some to look at, that didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t deserve to be shown at all.

“You don’t tell a victim of drunk driving that he needs to tell his story from behind a screen because the scars on his face are too gruesome,” he said.

To a certain extent Longworth has a point. If you were to argue that these pictures are too gruesome to be shown on street corners, others could just as easily argue that we’re exposed to graphic images everywhere – whether they’re those of dying Syrians floating around the interweb or murder scenes on the six o’clock news. We aren’t always in control of what we see – but should we have to right to be?

Not today Orwell, not today  

Censorship has long been regarded as the anti-Christ of the journalism world. Freedom of the press is an unbelievably powerful concept we use on the daily to inform or manipulate the masses, and when we start putting limitations on it, it’s easy enough to push certain agendas while repressing others. It’s extreme censorship that births Orwellian societies that I for one am not to keen on living in, because among other reasons, as a journalist, I would likely end up sitting at home twiddling my thumbs – or worse, behind bars.

In 2015, staff from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were targeted by gunmen after publishing controversial cartoons depicting religious figures, like the prophet Muhammad and the Pope. The magazine has earned itself a reputation for its "provocative" cartoons in the past.

As a free-thinking liberal that occasionally puts pen to paper, I know I should be taking a hard stance against the censorship of ideas and thoughts. But as a Muslim woman sensitive to how minorities are portrayed in the media, I can’t help but feel deeply offended by these comics. If you take a scroll through some of their cartoons you’ll see exactly what I mean.

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People were quick to claim the shooting was an attack on free speech, and I wholeheartedly agree. However, the flip side to that discussion is whether the blatantly offensive cartoons should have been published in the first place. Sure, cartoonists had every right to publish them – but whether you can do something versus whether you should do something are two very different things.

I recognize that offence is deeply subjective. And should journalists be worried about offending people, we would be tiptoeing around the stories that need to be told, without really telling them. Some of the best journalistic works were created with the purpose of ruffling feathers – I doubt the last thing on Woodward and Bernstein’s mind when uncovering the Watergate scandal was public opinion.

It seems that whenever I propose a new idea, or a new limit on the imaginary line limiting free speech, I end up with more questions that need answering, more equations that need solving, and more people that need to be accounted for. Debating the limits to something as vital as freedom of expression isn’t easy – but in many ways, it’s also very, very necessary.