Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Giving Offense, Inc.

The Belmont Club has a post entitled “The Cartoonist’s Plot." It describes the harassment of a Canadian magazine publisher for printing the execrable cartoons of Muhammad that were first published in Denmark, to worldwide notoriety. Bad as they are, they are not as bad as the destruction of freedom of speech, and that is why Ezra Levant, the publisher of the now-defunct Western Standard, is defending himself so vigorously. He has been summoned to testify before the Human Rights Commission of Alberta, a summons he is legally obligated to obey. It has the power to force him to publicly apologize for speech it judges shameful. See his wonderful performance, which he insisted on recording, in several video excerpts here. Mark Steyn has also run afoul of an HRC because Maclean’s printed an excerpt from his book. (He has an ongoing commentary on his battle with his hopelessly overmatched persecutors here.)

Wretchard sees a lowest-common-denominator problem – if people are reluctant to print things because they might violate the rules of the Canadian HRC (or because they might generate libel suits in plaintiff-friendly Britain), the speech doesn’t get published anywhere:

Mark Steyn and his publisher are reading the HRC the riot act. It's a courageous act because they are subject to the laws of Canada. And it's important that they win because, as Mark Steyn explains, US publishers are going to think twice about backing any book, printing any article, producing any show that can't be sold in Canada. Canada may not be a very large market in absolute terms, but few businessmen are going to produce a product which has no chance of being sold in Canada.

A loss in this "tacky little country" will be the first step towards the reduction of freedom everywhere in the North America and in Australia. We are fortunate to have stand-up guys fighting the HRC not just for Canadians but for all of us.”

It occurs to me that there is a useful money-making opportunity here, a publisher that specializes in censorship-bait, the firm any creator could turn to when conventional publishers show him the back of their hands. It would be subject to certain constraints – it could probably only sell in the U.S., where legal (if not necessarily cultural) protection of free speech is still robust. It would require a stable of lawyers who are experts in defamation law and the nascent law of taking offense, although proficiency at that would come precisely from specialization. And to be intellectually honest it would have to decide to offend everyone. But it seems to me that many money-making opportunities are being left on the table for fear of the consequences in jurisdictions jittery about robust debate because of libel tourism and hypersensitivity to offense. (Here is an appalling example of socially valuable speech lost.) If I had the money I’d do it myself.


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