Gaza Flotilla incident – Defence or piracy?


Recently a group of activists attempted to break the blockade of Gaza by sending a flotilla of 5 ships filled with humanitarian aid to the port of Gaza. On route the Israeli defence force (IDF) intercepted the flotilla and after a violent confrontation the flotilla was redirected. We have all seen the videos, the condemnation, the recriminations and the general excess of propaganda of both sides to see their viewpoint. Now this is intended to be another example of how skepticism can help clarify (if not answer) conflicts that arise of such heated issues.

The first question we must ask ourselves, does Israel have justification for imposing a blockade on the Gaza Strip? The Israeli government states that it is only trying to stop the flow of arms into the occupied territory because anti-Israeli ‘forces’ (be it an organized group or independents) fire mortars and rockets into Israel from the territory. Now according to my research, until 2006 probably less than 500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, from 2007-2008 that number rose to less than 5000 with a lull in 2009 of less than 200 (not including the ones fired during the Israeli invasion of the strip). Of these less than half were the ‘long’ range rockets mostly home-made with the rare exception. However, out of a reported 8600 attacks, they have only managed to kill 28 but injured hundreds. As in-effective as a ‘weapon of death’, the psychological effect on those in range of an attack (roughly the entire southern half of Israel) is profound. So, I think we can say that Israel has a justification for the blockade. We are not going to talk about the justification for the rocket attacks or the legality of the occupation; we are simply saying that Israel, under the current situation, has justification for blockading the Gaza Strip.

That said, we now must ask, what is justified to blockade? The reason stated for the flotilla was to supply materials that were being unjustly included in the blockade. We can agree that Israel is justified to blockade military supplies such as arms and munitions. What material was on the flotilla? According to Israel’s friendly neighbour (well pre-flotilla attack) Turkey, the ships were inspected to ensure no ‘contraband’ was onboard. On board were food, medical supplies and building materials. Of these, Israel claims the building material unacceptable because it could be used to create re-enforce bunkers…something only a problem IF Israel planned to re-occupy Gaze. Considering that the occupied territory has been ravaged by Israeli attacks (most notably the ‘incursion’ early in 2009), there is a great need to rebuild. Palestinians say that the denial of these good is not to protect Israel from attacks but to collectively punish the Palestinians for democratically electing Hamas as its major party/government.

Is Israel using the blockade as a form of collective punishment or for justifiable self-defence reasons? It has been noted by Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups that things such as paper, crayons, tomato paste, lentils, canned juice, etc[1]… were blocked because they were deemed ‘luxury goods’[2]. This also explains why Israel’s apparent conciliatory move to ‘distribute’ the aid itself was more PR than genuine. In previous attempts to deliver aide, Israel (offering to distribute the aide itself) delayed or failed to do so. Some stocks spending years in storage before being released by which time the items in question were spoiled. Under these conditions, it appears that there was justification on the activists’ part to try and, at least partially, break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

So, we have a situation where both sides are justified; Israel in enforcing a blockade and the flotilla in delivering humanitarian aid. Israel has the right (according to “San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea”) to detain any ship in its territorial waters (and for the sake of our analysis, Gaza will be considered Israeli territory), an area defined by the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” as (roughly) 23 km. Attempts to board, detain and confiscate ‘contraband’ in international waters could be interpreted as an act of piracy or illegal hostile actions.

Now the next question arises; where did the action take place. According to the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), the ‘incident’ with the flotilla lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, occurred at 68km west of Israel – clearly international waters. A previous attempt to break the blockade, by the ship “Spirit of Humanity”, was intercepted 29 km off the coast. It seems fair to state that the captain and passengers of the Mavi Marmara, believed that they had the right to deny access to the ship while in international waters and that any attempt to board was a hostile act which they were legally entitled to resist.

So far, we have acknowledged Israel might have the right to blockade but such right is limited to territorial waters, that the flotilla has the right to challenge a blockade that could be interpreted as collective punishment and that the boarding of the lead ship occurred in international waters.

Now from video evidence from onboard the flotilla ships, the IDF threw stun grenades on board the ship, it also fired live ammunitions (although this may have been intended as warning shots) that apparently hit two people killing one of them. Under these circumstances, the passengers had a right to defend themselves. When the ship failed to stop, the IDF landed heavily armed troops on the Mavi Marmara from helicopter. These troops were attacked. The flotilla passengers claim, with justification, that they were defending themselves from an attack that had already been fatal. The IDF, from their point of view, were justified in attempting to defend themselves from what it saw a legal enforcement of a blockade; a view supported by the edited out-of-context video produced by the IDF. We have discovered from our sceptical analysis, this view is hard to support when put into context however convinced of it the IDF or its ideologue supporters may be.

Now, questions of disproportionate force are beyond this discussion. The points we are after are “was the attack on the Mavi Marmara legal or not” and “was the response of the passenger and crew to the attack justified”? To me, this all boils down to the location, it appears that having occurred in international waters, the attack ‘stretched’ international law and secondly that the people onboard the Mavi Marmara believed they had a right to defend themselves. Irrespective of the (un)justification of the blockade itself, it seems that this incident in question shows the IDF share the greater share of responsibility. Again, political skeptism slices past the rhetoric and propaganda spewed out by both sides and show that most issues are not black and white and patients and research will at least put us on common ground to discuss the truly ‘debateable’ issues at stake.




Can you call Israel an apartheid state?


As some of our of you may know; recently the Toronto Pride Committee (TPC) denied the group QAIA (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid) to participate in the Pride Day parade. TPC was forced to do this because of intensive pressure and legal intimidation from hawkish Israeli lobbyists and a threat to cut funding from a similarly intimidated Toronto city council.

Those who are against the Israeli treatment of non-Jews in Israel or the Palestinians in the occupied territories, claim Israel is an apartheid state. Those who support the official Israeli lines, condemn those who use this term, apartheid, as being anti-Semitic and are misusing the term to denigrate and vilify “the Jew!”

The conflict in Palestine/Israel has been a long and bloody one. It seems uncontroversial that Israel has used disproportionate force but it is also true that most Israelis genuinely live in a constant state of fear from deadly violence. Both sides have an agenda and have shown in the past little reluctance to use whatever event to gain propaganda points. Skepticism can help here, by separating the rhetoric from the ‘facts’…creating at least the environment for honest debate on the issues.

So back to the TPC, QAIA and skepticism; I wanted to check out the claim that Israel was participating in apartheid. So I thought I could make it a case study in political skepticism.

The first thing we need to do is define what apartheid is. Fortunately for us (and not so much Africa) South Africa, in its horrible racial discrimination, forced the UN to codify (in the resolution “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid”) what exactly defines apartheid. It is divided into five parts: (paraphrased)

1) Denial to a racial group of life or liberty by the use of harm (physical or psychological), arbitrary arrest or the denial of freedoms or dignity
2) Deliberate Impositions on a racial group living conditions designed to physically destroy that group in whole OR in part
3) Legislative measures intended to deny a racial group political, economic or social participation in the country and deliberately preventing that group’s full development.
a. Denial of the right to leave or return
b. Denial of the right of freedom of movement
c. Among others (these seem most salient to our analysis)
4) Any legislative measures intended to divide the population alone racial lines
a. Isolating racial groups into separate geographic enclaves or reserves
b. Prohibitions of legal marriage between racial groups
c. The expropriation of land belonging to one racial groups for the use of another
5) Persecutions of groups or organizations, by the denial of rights, because of their opposition to apartheid.

From this we see on important theme, that of ‘racial group’. We also see a reference (both explicit and implicit) to country or nation. In that, apartheid is inflicted on the citizens of its own nation. This leads us to our first fact/propaganda distinctions. The West Bank and Gaza are technically occupied territory and not part of Israel proper. If those who desire a ‘greater Israel’ (which would see the annexation of the occupied territory) get their way, then the territory recognised now as Palestine, would count in our discussion; however for the moment it does not. This does not mean one cannot condemn Israel’s actions in the occupied territories but one cannot use those actions to support a claim of apartheid…yet.  We shall still continue our analysis but our now limited to Israel proper.

So, if we are going to apply the term “apartheid” (leaving the other aspects for now) to Israel, we must answer the question – is it a racial state? We must ask, does the government see Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state in the sense of the religion or as a race? Does it provide preferential treatment of one racial group (let’s assume those of Jewish decent) and disadvantageous treatment of those of another racial group (those of Arab/Palestinian decent).

First, we shall look at Israeli marriage laws. These laws forbid the marriage of people outside their religious group. So a Jew may only marry a Jew, a Muslim to a Muslim…etc. “Mixed” marriages performed outside Israel are recognised in Israel. Now for Jews, this law is interpreted harshly for only orthodox (or religious) Jews may be married; secular or ‘converted’ Jews are seen as ‘not Jewish enough’ to be married. This seems to make it look more religious than racial.

Second, there is the “Law of Return”, which makes it a right of any one of “Jewish ancestry” to emigrate to Israel. The term ‘ancestry’ is a racial term. This seems to provide preferential treatment to ‘racial’ Jews to both immigrate to Israel and, at least in the past, to become automatic citizens. This is in stark contrast to the policy towards Palestinians or Arabs. In the “Prevention of Infiltration Law”, it strictly prohibits Palestinians (and Arabs) from ‘re-entering’ Israel.

The “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law” (although not using racial terms) denies the spouse of an Israeli citizen, citizenship themselves IF they are from the West Bank or Gaza. Because the bill affects almost exclusively Israeli Arabs (those being the ones to marry Palestinians) it may be seen as adding some support to the racialization of Israel.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF), a non-profit organization that is closely entwined with the Israeli governments is responsible for the purchase and development of ‘Jewish’ settlements. When the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the JNF’s refusal to sell land to Israeli Arabs to be discrimination, the Israeli government circumvented the court by guaranteeing the JNF that any land it sold to Arabs would be compensated by a gift of land from the Israeli Land Authority (ILA) so as to ensure that ‘Jewish’ ownership of land is not diminished.  The JNF selects 10 out of 22 directors of the ILA, giving it huge influence over this government agency. The ILA controls 93% of the lands of Israel (either directly, through long term leases or via the JNF which controls 12% of Israeli national lands). Because the Supreme Court thought this land use discriminatory and the government’s actions to perpetuate this discrimination, based on ethnicity/race, this also adds to the evidence Israel is a racial state.

Lastly, working on the other side, the “Palestinian land laws”, perpetuate what some call the ghetto of Palestine by forbidding Palestinians to sell their land to non-Palestinians; in effect tying them to the land like serfs. Now this law is also intended to prevent the continual erosion of West Bank land to Jewish settlers but considering that the settlements are allowed to grow via other legal means, it seems the effect of this law is to ensure racial isolation.

Now, it may not be a clear cut case, but it does seem plausible (although not necessary) to claim that Israel is a racial state; that this claim is valid from a politically sceptical point of view. Those who claim that to even make such claims is innately anti-Semetic, untenable and simply propaganda are wrong.  Now, some will argue that what is in Israel now is nothing like what happened in South Africa during its apartheid period…that is true and irrelevant. The fact that one person steals $100 and another $10,000, does not mean the first is not guilty of theft; this is (thanks to the UN) not a crime of degree but of kind. So, having determined that one could claim Israel is a racial state, is it guilty of breaking any of the criteria we set out in the beginning?

Points 1(Denial of life and liberty)and 2(Physical destruction) seems very evident in the West Bank and Gaza (although Israeli officials may justify their actions, the results are the same) but as we stated earlier, until Israel annexes these territories they cannot be a part of our analysis. Point 5 (Legal suppression of apartheid groups) may be true but I have not found any evidence in Israel itself, although non-legal pressure has been evident, this also seems to not support the case.

Points 3 (right of return and movements) and 4(racial segregation), however do seem to provide some evidence of apartheid. As mentioned before, the marriage laws seem more religious based than racial but coupled with the implicit limitation of spousal immigration and land sales, it is plausible to use this as evidence. The most damning evidence of apartheid is the unequal treatment, based on race, to rights of return, immigration, internal movement, government support for housing and etc.

In conclusion, I am not saying that Israel is or is not an apartheid state but using the skills of political skepticism we have determined that it is a viable point of view. That, returning to the point of origin of this article, Toronto’s Pride Committee decision to deny Queers Against Israel Apartheid participation in the Pride Parade was unjust and censorship. Although, one may not agree with QAIA’s views, their views are possible and not hate speech or anti-Semitism. However, it is an untenable position to hold that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism; it is possible to be both pro-Zionist and anti-Israel or to be pro-Israel and anti-Israeli policy with regards to Palestinians. Ultimately remember, keep your eyes open and minds on!



Let me tell you about my night with Deepak. Myself and a group of skeptics went to pass out information pamphlets at a performance of Deepak Chopra at Vancouver recently. We did not want to be too confrontational; wanting instead to reach out to those who have been taken-in by the mis-speak of Deepak. When asked by friends what we were doing I was at a bit of a loss; we were not exactly picketing or protesting Deepak – that would have been more aggressive and confrontational. To say were ‘just skeptics’ handing out notes seemed weak. It is also true that a number of skeptics are passive and live the skeptic life but don’t want to ‘preach’ or promote the cause. Then it struck me (well a friend of mine), it was skeptivism…skeptic activism.

Skeptivism is what we as skeptics do best. Like political activist we are acting…educating…we are casting a light on issues that the broader population should know about. Skeptivism is the effort that skeptics do to advocate for skeptism. We need more skeptivism because as quick as we shine the light of reason and science on one quack another shows up. At the Deepak event I heard, for the first time, about a ‘new healer’ who uses chromotherapy healing that seems to be the next big thing in the metro Vancouver.

To that end, how can you get into skeptivism.

First be informed – subscribe to Radio FreeThinker on iTunes (while at it, you might also subscribe to Skeptoid and SGU). Check out some blogs like Pharyngula or SkepticBlog. Check out science sites like Nature or Scientific America.

Second, get connected – checkout Sceptics-in-the-Pub, Café Scientific. Join a group – UBC FreeThinkers or Center For Inquiry. All on Facebook

Third, get involved – check out events in your community, talk (not yell) to your friends about skeptic issues (global warming, anti-vax, alt-med), and don’t let your friend think fiction is fact.

Lastly, be effective – Skeptivism is advocacy and education it is not mounting the barricades and eliminating the enemy (Skeptic warriors do that work). It is not directly confronting the hard-core believers but in ensuring the deceived, ill-informed and gullible are given the knowledge they need to exercise their own skeptism. It is also to make sure whenever the pseudo-scientist/Quack-med/New-ager tries to convert and confuse another flock of people, we are there to provide an alternative…a lifeline from the misinformation, illogical and (often) false information pushed by those who profit from the unskeptical.

Now get out there, it is Skeptivism in action!

Bio-Fuel – Food/habitat for fuel?


This is another segment in our series on alternative energy, in the past we have talk about nuclear energy and this week we are going to talk about another alternative to our traditional Petro-coal economy – Bio fuels.

First, what are bio-fuels?

Simply put, these are fuel sources that are derived directly from organic sources – ie plants. The simplest bio-fuel that we all may be acquainted with is firewood. But firewood cannot replace gas, but the real promise of bio-fuels can be seem more in things like palm or canola oil – we are all acquainted with these now as cooking oils.  Another promising bio-fuel is alcohol.

So, how do bio-fuels help?

Bio-fuels, in general, are seen as possible saviour to fuel-intensive society because they are renewable and are claimed to be carbon neutral. The current state of the technology…

Bio-Alcohol – extracting sugars or starches from wheat, corn, beets, sugarcane, etc… and fermenting then into alcohol or as its better known in the fuel sphere – ethanol. This is the most pervasive of the bio-fuels because of its easy adoption as an additive to traditional gas. If you see at the gas station ethanol blends, like Mohawks Natures Blend, they usually have up to 10% ethanol. You can find in more and more locations E85, which is 85% ethanol however this is not universal because it requires modification to the standard car engine.

  • Pros – Like with all bio-fuels it is renewable and it is based on a tried and true current technology –so no waiting for future development
  • Cons – Diverts food from people to cars, requires significant energy inputs to produce (ie for the distillation of the alcohol)

Bio-Oil – The use of vegetable oil as a fuel with little or no process. Vegetable oil can be, with little processing, be used directly as a fuel in a modified car. You might have seen these on TV almost a decade ago portrayed as deep-fryer or chip cars because they would recycle used deep-fryer oil as a fuel. Pure Oil (or not recycled) fuel come from plants that are not part of the human food chain and can grow on ‘agriculturally marginal’ lands – for example the Camelina which was used as a fuel oil in the bronze age but not a current agricultural crop.

  • Pros – renewable, Recycled is tried and test (it was used during WWII fuel shortages) but Pure Oil still in the research stage, recycle existing waste.
  • Cons –Recycling not really economically sustainable on a grand scale, threatens natural habitat not presently used for agriculture.

Bio-Diesel – Vegetable oil again but this time highly processed to for a more ‘standard’ hydrocarbon chain. Like ethanol it is often used as an additive to fossil fuel diesel, up to 15%, although modified or special designed engine are appearing able to handle B100 or pure bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is produced by mixing veggie oil with sodium hydroxide and methanol, the resulting compound is then processed to remove impurities and you get bio-diesel.

  • Pros – renewable, some forms well established, some forms high yield and used non-agricultural land (algae and the bio-oils mentioned earlier)
  • Cons – Requires significant energy inputs to create, established forms remove food from the system the other forms result in loss of natural habitat and are future tech.

Bio-Gas – The capturing of methane from decomposing organic material. This is usually the end product of natural bacterial digestion. There are two main ways to capture this gas, one is to “cover existing landfills” and collect the gas natural leaking from these dumps. This reduced local air pollution and takes a greenhouse gas and puts it to some use (although it will still ultimately be a greenhouse gas one way or another). Another way is to create “waste dumps”, be it manure or other bio-mass and again capture the methane emitted by the decomposition process. These tend to be cheap to produce, at least on small scale, making them ideal for less developed nations.

  • Pros – Cheap, natural, and in the small scale well established
  • Cons – relied on waste, hard to scale up (while remaining efficient and environmentally acceptable)

Bio-Hydrogen – the use of photosynthesis to produce hydrogen from water. Hydrogen has been seen, and therefore developed, as an alternative fuel source (at least for transportation). So the science of using hydrogen is well developed. However, the stumbling block has always been the actual production of hydrogen, which currently is an energy loss system (ie more energy in than out). Bio-hydrogen could solve this problem by producing the hydrogen organically, than making it an positive energy system.

  • Pros – cheap, environmentally sustainable, renewable
  • Cons – distant future tech

Now that we know what we are talking about, bio-fuels are very controversial.

First, current levels of technology rely heavily on crops like soybeans, corn and sugarcane. Do we notice what these things have in common? Yes, they are all also food crops. In 2008 there were riots around the world over the perceived food-shortage due to the idea that these crops were being diverted from tables to cars.

To answer this question we need to assess three points:

How much ‘food’ has been diverted?

To figure out how much potential food has been diverted we need to get a rough estimate about the amount of bio-fuel produced. Bio-Diesel about 6.5 billion litres, Bio-alcohol about 40 billion litres and the others don’t primarily rely on food crops. To simplify our analysis, we will just focus on the Bio-Alcohol, or better known as ethanol, because it’s better understood and accounts for about ¾ of bio-fuel production.

According to The World Bank, it takes about 2.4 kg of maize to make 1 litre of ethanol, so using that as rough average, which works out to be about 96 billion kg of maize. In Brazil, which accounts for the largest production of ethanol, sugarcane is used. Using that as a base about 2.2 kg of sugar is used to make 1 litre of ethanol, or about 88 billion kg of sugar a year. Well, of course it’s one or that other not both, so about 35% is from sugarcane and about 55% from maize.

Compare this to world production of maize (785 trillion kg) and sugarcane (1.6 trillion kg), it amounts to a small percentage (<0.007% maize and <2% sugar). There was a marked rise in crop prices in 2008 (which sparked the world riots) but that was largely (as time has shown) the result of commodity speculators – speculators quite likely influenced by the very organizations that were protesting food for fuel. So, one could make the argument that every little bit counts, but as a percentage, animal feed far out paces ethanol productions, so one could make a more compelling argument for veganism.,,contentMDK:21501336~pagePK:64167689~piPK:64167673~theSitePK:2795143,00.html

How is that diversion compared to ’boutique’ crops or crops sent to wealthy nations?

So, what other things remove food from the system? We already briefly mentioned animal feed, but another one is organic farming. Again, not wanting to make moral arguments about the ethicy of organic farming, the bare fact is that it is (at best) 5% less productive than ‘factory’ farming…meaning organics take out three to ten times more food than bio-fuel.

How much of the increase in crops are the result of bio-fuels and how much the result of speculation in bio-fuel?

In late 2007 and 2008 there was a huge issue regarding the pricing and availability of food crops. There were riots throughout the world as people complained that food crops were being diverted to fuel production and (more supportable) that the “bio-fuel rush” was causing a huge increase in food prices and thus causing more malnutrition and starvation among the world’s poor. It is true that for many developing nations the cost of importing food increased as much as 25%; the price of wheat doubled and many other crops (rice, soybean) and their derivatives (milk, meat) reached all-time highs in 2008. However, although more resources are being deployed into the production of bio-fuels, the price of most food crops has notable reduced, most to prices lower than 2007 levels.

Now many leaders of the developed nations claimed the rise was due to increases in world population and the increased demand placed by them on the global system. But this has only increased (ie more people today than yesterday), so one would assume a stable or increasing price for food crops – which is not true. Some blame increased ‘neo-liberal’ policies (which I think are inherently immoral) but again, these fail the price stability test. The only thing that seems to account for the temporary increase is “the market” in the form of commodity speculations. Now some might argue the law of “supply and demand” – Daniel?

IF, there is a problem, its root is our system of distribution – resources go not to those-in-need but those-in-greed…or those who can afford it but that is a topic of another show)

Another are of controversy is that some crops, including canola and palm oil, are being planted in virgin land, notably rainforest land being ‘converted’ to crop land. Parallel to this, a number of people around the world have claimed to be displaced from their land by large ‘corporate farms’ to grow these bio-fuel crops. Now this is perhaps more important than the idea of “food or fuel” because these crops are seen as second generation bio-fuels – the future of bio-alternatives.

To answer this question we need to assess some points:

How much land is being used by bio-fuel crops?

Now most people note that deforestation and ‘crop-conversion” has increased the most for bio-fuels compared to other uses. However, because bio-fuel use was so small to begin with, as a percentage of the whole it is still quite small. It is hard to assess exact numbers but the research I have done shows that most deforestation is for…well wood, although clearing for cattle production is also significant. In fact, the only real pressure that bio-fuels seem to put on ‘virgin land’ is to provide cover for logging (ie. Land set aside for bio-fuel is really just used as an excuse to cut down old growth forest) and it grows well in the poor soils that rain-forests grow in (ie. Once cleared, biofuel crops will ‘absorb’ the ex-rainforest land). Another area that shows an increase in bio-fuel crops in the reclaiming of swamp lands. This is notable in Palm oil crops in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Compared to other land-use, are these lands significant?

As implied above, although it is true that bio-fuels are having more of an impact each year, they are still relatively insignificant compared to other threats. The threat possed by wood harvesting is magnitude greater. That said, there is one area that maybe there is a good case – reclaimed land. Although in a pure human-centric capitalist view point, swamps are unproductive and are ‘improved’ by transforming them into ‘cash crops’, however environmentalist would argue that the loss of bio-diversity that swamps and similar ‘marginal’ lands possess is a great harm both to humanity and the biosphere as a whole – that there is something more important than money. In an odd way, the unproductiveness of these lands have served, in the past, to protect nature…that protecting, thanks to bio-fuels, seems to be lifting.

Again, another side issue not truly related to bio-fuel but more about equality, capitalism and environmentalism.,8599,1701221,00.html

Limits on Free Speech


Below is the talk I gave at UBC Feb 24 on the limits of free speech.


Free Speech Lecture

Welcome and thank you for coming out, this discussion is about the limits of Free Speech and the first limit is I get to speak and no one else does. (dramatic pause) No, that was a joke. I hope to start things off by giving context to our discussion then open the floor up to for questions and comments.

Let’s start by asking what is free speech and why is there such a reverence for it. On the surface free speech is the ability of one to transmit their ideas to the public. Free speech does not, in a modern ‘western’ context, refer to private speech between individuals. However what qualifies as ‘ideas’ can be everything from political ideology, commercial advertisements, comedy…etc. It is in the transmission of ideas, and often the more controversial questioning of ideas, that lie at the heart at what we see as the value of free speech. John Stuart Mill said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race [for] If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”[1]. We live in a culture of constant change, where stagnation is seen as detrimental to progress and only through the improvement of thought that society can evolve. Radio Free Thinker, as a skeptic show, is predicated on the idea that dogma should be challenged everywhere and that only through this free exchange of ideas that a healthy society can exist.

That said; it is also dogma (hmmm…) that free speech is the first among rights and should be complete and absolute. Therefore we shall focus on the need to limit speech, where those limits might be and how such limits might be enforced while preserving the spirit of and medicinal nature of free speech.

In the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms, we find section 2b which states that a fundamental freedom is that of thought, belief, opinion and expression. However, section 1 states that such rights have “reasonable limits” and can be limited when “demonstrably justified” to protect a “free and democratic society”. This arrangement or priorities shows a fundamental difference between Canada and the USA, in the US constitution (if not in practice) the individual is supreme and as such the only function of government is to protect the individual’s liberty. Canada, by contrast, has always been a more ‘communal’ nation and this “one for all and all for one” Victorian spirit can be seen in our founding anthem “Peace, order and good governance”. The legal opinion in Canada is that only through a healthy society can an individual prosper; turning the US idea on its head.

No, this is not a discussion about the merits of communalism vs. individualism, nor about the historical developments of nation states. We are concerned with free speech here and now; in the context of what is. There are limitations on free speech and these are manifest in three areas – legal, economic and social. In Canada, freedom of expression can be limited provided it is justifiable, that said limitation of proportional and ‘rationally connected to their aims’. For those who have taken any Canadian law, you will know this as the “Oaks test” after the case of the same name.

What is “Justifiable”? The principle here is that, given a specific manifestation of speech, the harm done to a ‘free and democratic society’ would be greater if the freedom were allowed unlimited than if it were limited. A classic example of this is violent pornography. The courts acknowledge that pornography is a protected form of expression however it also upholds legislation the limits violent porn because, in the opinion of the justices, there is a ‘reasonable apprehension of harm’.

What is ‘rationally connected to their aims’? This simply means that if I wanted to prevent the sale of violent porn, any limitation of freedom must be connected to that aim. I could not revoke the drivers licence of those who sell violent porn – it may be punitive but has no rational connection to the aim of ‘preventing the sale of violent porn’.

What is proportional? This means that any freedom must be limited as minimally as possible to achieve its state aims. So a ban on the sale of all porn, so as to prevent the sale of violent porn, is a larger restriction of freedom than is needed to prevent the stated aim when a simple ban on violent porn would be sufficient.

Now this limitation is important when it comes to Canada’s hate speech laws. Canada is a multicultural nation; as such ‘identity’ groups are a fundamental aspect of our cultural landscape. Even those, notably libertarians and Marxists, who do not believe in identity groups, are forced to acknowledge that both victims and victimisers believe in these groups and are willing to use them to perpetrate hatred and violence. Now, in the case of holocaust denial, overt racism or homophobic violence, it is a general consensus that these forms of speech should be limited.

However, there are issues with this; such as at what point does my discussion of genetic distinctions between races cross over into racism? There are other issues, where do we draw the line about what is hate speech? Does Leviticus constitute hate speech? Do comments about the Israeli occupation of Palestine constitute anti-Semitism? The courts have given four exceptions or guides to distinguish ‘hate’ from non-hate speech even when such comments might be construed as hate. These defences are ‘it’s true’, ‘good faith opinion on a religious matter’, ‘in the public interest’ and ‘good faith attempts to point out hate speech’. So Leviticus is off the hook because we have a, in my opinion a destructive, special place for religion…comments on Israel MAY be okay IF true…

Okay, so that’s the law. There are two other ways that our freedom of speech is limited. Economically; this means that someone like Jim Shaw (who own Shaw Cable and just purchase CanWest/Global) who has both money and access can have more speech than I have. However, this leads into the difference between positive and negative rights. Legally, and ideologically, our society tend to side with negative rights over positive rights. This means a right is simply the absence of hindrance…i.e. no one is preventing me from running an ad on CBC. Positive rights means the presence of opportunity…i.e. I am given free time on CBC to speak. For those who are aware of the resent Supreme Court decision in the US will know this a huge topic south of boarder (and maybe one that should be bigger here as well).

The other limitation is that preached by people like Foucault. This is the ability for society, or ourselves, to censor what is obsessively legal speech. A great example of this was during the Olympics. There was reported that the head of RCMP security for the Olympics said that there would be “free speech” zones, and then the VPD said people could demonstrate anywhere but there would be designated areas for “safe”[2] protesting. Other talk about prosecution for ‘anti-Olympic’ posters and unprecedented enhanced security in the GVRD lead to a form of social self-censorship; where a great number of people just did not want to chance a run-in with the authorities. As a radio personality, I acknowledge that there have been a number of times I have thought twice about saying a thing for fear of legal or social outrage that may hinder Radio Free Thinker or cause personal suffering.

This social censorship also related to our earlier discussion of positive rights. Currently there is a legal debate going on about the loss of ‘club status’ of an anti-abortion group at the University of Victoria, of another club at the University of Western Ontario that has been ‘decertified’ for its apparent pro-Palestinian or anti-Semitic stance, depending on who you are speaking to. The UVic case is not so much  a question of free speech, for the club is allowed to organize if it wish, but a question of equality because is being treated differently than other ‘groups’ by being denied club status.

The heart of this case shines a light also on where or how we define hate speech. Opponents to the club point out that its (or similar groups) posters can be graphically obscene and the fundamental stance of the group is to imply the women who have or even advocate abortion are “bad” people who should be shunned. Pro-choice groups point out that anti-abortionist groups have violently harassed and harmed those who advocate, seek and/or provide abortions. The anti-abortion club claims its posters are tasteful; that it has not directly been involved in harassment and that it merely represents a difference of opinion on an issue that they should have much freedom to express as those who are pro-choice.

One last thought before we open the floor. Do universities, and by extension its students and faculty, have a great ‘right’ to free speech than those ‘off campus’? Do universities have a special and protected role in society to be a ‘bastion’ of speech irrespective of its content, impact or perspective provided it is done to forward academic education/research/growth?

ON that note…I will open the floor to thoughts, questions and comments….

[1] p. 24, Mill, J.S., Three Essays: On Liberty; Representative Government; The Subjection of Women. Oxford University Press, 1975, ISBN 0-19-283013-9

[2] Staff Sgt. Mike Cote, “Olympic protest zones don’t exist VPD says” (

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