Freedom to Read


The freedom to read is so vitally important because it is so necessary to help us find the truth. It is needed to seek the truth.

University of California at Berkley professor John Powell is an expert on civil liberties and democracies. He is particularly concerned about at the record number of books that are being banned in schools around the United States (the land of the free!). I am also concerned. They are banning some of my favourite books such as Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye or Beloved (both of which I have blogged about) and one I want to blog about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a true classic of American literature. I am appalled at the thought that American students in some places won’t be allowed to read these books.

Remember books are being attacked from the left and the right. Conservatives are hung up about sex, gender issues, and racism. Liberals get tout of joint over outdated racial depictions.

Powell commented on the issue of banning Maus, the book about the Holocaust. He made a very good point” “You can’t make the Holocaust a nice thing! Slavery wasn’t a nice thing. That makes people uncomfortable.” Yes that is why it is a good book! As he added, “the goal of education is not to make people comfortable.” If people think the school is not teaching their children the truth they should challenge it. Explain to your children why the school is wrong. We all know they are often wrong! Look at us; we survived that. One of my teachers taught us that when you went to a Chinese restaurant before dining you would be wise to go to the kitchen to make sure there were no cat skins on the coat racks . That same teacher taught me that no religion other than Christianity was worth seriously considering. He didn’t do a very good job.  I survived these intellectual onslaughts.  As Powell said, “If someone really wants to challenge the Holocaust” let him challenge, but don’t ban discussion of it.”

I should mention that Canada’s view of this issue is a more complicated than that,  as demonstrated in the case of R. Keegstra, which I will talk about later.  That gets to the issue of hate speech which I find extremely interesting. Should there be limits on the freedom to make hate speech? If so what are those limitations? And what are the limitations on those limitations? Here Canada and the US have diverged significantly. More on this later.


Canada recognizes other limitations on free speech such as the laws of defamation and slander, and the law limiting the freedom to express sexually explicit words or images. Canada also have real controls on election spending, which at one was also limited in the US until the infamous Citizens United case. We have some fascinating Canadian cases on these topics as well. There is a lot of material through which one can meander and I intend to do exactly that.


The most important figure on the issue of free speech was English philosopher John Stuart Mill who wrote about it in the mid-18th century. He basically proposed that government should only be able to limit free speech when the speech would cause harm to others. I will dig into Mill as well. He was a brilliant philosopher, but have we learned somethings since the 18th century? One would think so.


American laws as well as Canadian laws have generally followed Mill’s guidelines.  As a result even in the US there are permitted limits on the freedom of public expression that include obscenity, defamation, death threats, incitement to violence—harms in other words. Yet those limitations are also limited.


However, as Powell indicated, the recent restrictions being imposed in the US have much more to do with culture wars than with preventing harm, though the conservatives and liberals who are leading the charge might well argue that they are just trying to prevent harms. We’ll see. It is certainly wrong to say some speech should be regulated because I don’t like it. Or I am because I am offended by it. As Powell said, “discomfort is not the same as an injury.” Or to put it another way, offense or discomfort are not sufficient harms to justify banning the expression that elicits offense or discomfort.

That of course leads to the next question: How harmful does speech have to be to justify banning it? I think that is the crucial question.

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