The other day, the New York Times posted an article about a weekly news magazine in Canada that printed an article in October of 2006 about how “the rise of Islam threatened Western values.” The article goes on to say that topics the article discusses are nothing different from what conservative magazines and blogs here in the states have discussed. The only difference? Maclean’s–the magazine that printed the original article–is now on trial for violating a “provincial hate speech law by stirring up hatred against Muslims.” A ruling on whether or not the magazine has violated the law has yet to be made, but that hasn’t stopped arguments from breaking out about whether it’s hate speech or free speech.
If this were to happen on this side of the border, the argument would be settled by a simple reciting of the First Amendment. I remember at the end of fall quarter this year, my Newslab professor, Karen Rathe, made our class memorize it and even though I felt a little ridiculous (as I’m sure the rest of my class did as well) singing it blues style, I’m glad we did because it hammered the words into my head (at least for awhile). Never before have I really realized the difference between this country and the rest of the “Western” world. Just knowing that I don’t have to worry about any legal repercussions from the government as a result of what I may say here on this blog or anything else that may be published or printed where my name appears on the byline makes me truly appreciate living here. It made me really understand what I think Karen was trying to get at when she told us to put the First Amendment to music.
Canada and the U.S. are pretty similar in many aspects and so it’s pretty easy to assume that our neighbors to the north share similar laws when it comes to free speech and the like. That’s one of the reasons why I was so surprised about the legal ramifications that Maclean’s is facing. It was equally surprising when I discovered a few other developed countries such as England, France, Germany and Australia have laws banning hate speech. Have being the operative word. These aren’t laws from way back when, but current laws that are applicable today–the Canadian trial being a prime example. Having lived here my entire life (minus three months last quarter where I was studying in Rome), the idea of going to court over something I wrote seemed absolutely ludicrous.
So, while I was having my Proud American moment, remembering the Civil Rights movement as well as the Vietnam war protests in the 1960s, another memory crept into my mind; a more current one that actually happened during my lifetime. I remembered the whole Dixie Chicks controversy back in 2003 when Natalie Maines uttered those now infamous words at a concert in London: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” The aftermath of this single sentence was insane. I remember watching on the news as people gathered to trash their DC CDs together.
The impact of Maines’ words on the group’s record sales was tremendous. Country music radio stations refused to play their music and so the group had to figure out other ways to distribute their music. The documentary Shut Up and Sing, follows the Dixie Chicks from 2003 to 2006 as they deal with the consequences. Throughout the film the Texas group doesn’t give in to the pressure and write their songs a certain way to improve their sales. The women stuck together and never backed down; they did things their own way even though image suffered as a result.
And although they were able to say the things they said and do the things they did without facing legal repercussions, the group was still greatly affected in a negative way. The title Shut Up and Sing comes from DC protesters who wanted the ladies to just shut up and sing. It’s interesting how these people were exercising their First Amendment rights by protesting the group’s rights through the same amendment. To me, this is not that different from what’s going on in Canada–minus the legal issues. It’s as if we have the right to free speech, but it comes with strings attached: you can’t say anything against public opinion, especially if you’re a public figure and you can’t say it in public.
That just completely negates the point of the First Amendment. Its purpose was to encourage citizens to address issues and grievances with their government without the fear of repercussions and people need to remember that. It’s understandable that people have the right to disagree with and oppose what others say and even protest against it; it’s all within their First Amendment rights. I just don’t think that it’s too much to ask that they at least treat these people’s opinions with respect because it’s their First Amendment rights as well.