THE BLOG
01/16/2015 03:02 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Free Expression Can Be Provocative

Freedom of Expression or provocation is the question of the week stemming from the recent terrorist attacks in France -- especially at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. My answer is simply it is not one or the other. Freedom of expression can and does often result in provocation of those who do not share the views of the person or group expressing their point of view.

Freedom of expression is a right prized in western countries. In Canada, we entrenched it in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the US First Amendment to the constitution is well known. Freedom can test our will and level of tolerance at times when we hear expression that we consider hurtful or disrespectful of the beliefs that we hold dear. Sometimes it might feel that someone is poking a hot poker in our eyes because of the nature of the expression. Pope Francis is quoted as saying that freedom of expression has limits including not provoking or insulting other people's faith.

Yes, freedom of religion is another fundamental right protected in our charter but insulting another's faith is not likely an infringement of freedom of expression. I am sure that many religious groups and individuals feel offended by cartoons or other forms of communication that mock their beliefs. At the same time, this freedom gives us the right to speak out and rebut or criticize the point of view being expressed. If we do not like a cartoon, point of view or article we can communicate our displeasure using the means of social media available to us today. Most people will simply dismiss provocative comments as not worth wasting time and effort to respond. If we respond, we may provoke further negative expression and give the speaker or media an even bigger outlet for their ideas.

The Pope is correct in that freedom of expression does have limits. Our Charter makes it very clear that all of the guaranteed rights are subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." These rights are entrenched in our constitution to protect against legislations, policies or actions of our government that may infringe these rights. Our society has deemed justifiable laws that limit speech that is defamatory, obscene, or incites or promotes hatred or genocide against groups. While not everyone shares the view about the need for such legislation, the courts have upheld many "hate" provisions as reasonable limits to freedom of expression. If attacks on another religion or faith is intended to incite hatred it will not likely be protected by the freedom of expression guarantees.

The real issue in recent events in Europe and at universities is not about the limits of freedom of expression. Rather it is realizing that expression can be provocative, degrading, insulting and may evoke consequences that the communicator does not control. While the male dental students at Dalhousie may have exercised their "right to freedom of expression" when they posted degrading comments, these comments may be in breach of codes of conduct for the profession and the university, resulting in serious implications for the careers of the young men involved. I may be free to express my negative views about my boss, but find myself on the street without a job. Attacking a friend's cherished beliefs may result in losing the friend. Provocative cartoons will no doubt provoke reactions. Freedom of the press is a fundamental part of freedom of expression . While violent reactions to cartoons or satire deemed offence cannot be condoned or justified, currently the risk of such reactions are well known. Not all societies, cultures or groups view or value freedom of expression in the same way as western nations and may not have the same level of tolerance nor choose to respond through communication, rather than violence.

All of our rights come with responsibilities, something that we often forget. We need to consider our words, drawings or other forms of communication without fear or giving in to threats, while at the same time weighing the consequences of our words and actions. Exercising freedom of expression can take great courage in difficult circumstances and equally when exercising restraint in others. Effective communication and expression of differing views can be done in a respectful manner that encourages debate or that provokes strong reactions. Freedom of expression gives us that choice.