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Peter Black

Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Someone in our household is receiving emails from a notorious figure in Donald Trump’s insurrection escapade. Such unsolicited missives would normally go straight to spam, but somehow the messages from Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) are getting through.

Hawley, as American politics wonks will know, was one of the group of Republican senators who voted against the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory mere hours after Trump’s ginned-up mob breached and ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. He was famously pictured giving the rioters a fist pump of solidarity.

Hawley writes in his Feb. 12 fundraising pitch: “They are going after Trump, and they are still coming after me – both of us for the same sin: instead of protecting the elites, I stood up for the people.”

One consequence of Hawley standing up for the people was the decision of the publisher of his book, titled The Tyranny of Big Tech, to drop him. Hawley called the decision “a direct assault on the First Amendment” and promptly found another publisher.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been front and centre in the news lately, with “freedom of speech” being a central pillar in Trump’s impeachment trial defence – not that it mattered to the 43 Republican senators voting to acquit.

Freedom of speech is also in the news here, in somewhat less spectacular and consequential ways.

This corner has already written about the decade-long legal battle between comic Mike Ward and Jérémy Gabriel, the former child singer with a facial deformity, which was to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada this week. Whatever the top court decides, it will be an important reflection on the limits of freedom of speech in comedy.

Less litigious is the flap Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet sparked with his comments about newly appointed Transport Minister Omar Alghabra. A Jan. 13 party statement on the cabinet shuffle that elevated the longtime Toronto Liberal to the post said “... the Bloc leader refuses to accuse anyone, but questions are raised about the proximity of the new Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, to the political Islamic movement of which he was a leader for several years.”

The “political Islamic movement” to which Blanchet refers is the Canadian Arab Federation, a strictly secular group since its founding in 1967, of which Alghabra was briefly president more than 20 years ago.

But it is not Blanchet’s comments about the minister that are the freedom of speech issue, although he has been roundly condemned for them – including on his Twitter feed, and that’s where the trouble lies.

Blanchet has been blocking commenters on his Twitter account, leading to accusations of limiting freedom of speech, since some observers consider social media platforms public forums for discussion.

Blanchet brushed off the criticism: “When I block people, it’s because their posts don’t interest me.”

It’s not known whether Blanchet has ever blocked a Twitter comment from his former Parti Québécois caucus colleague and current premier, François Legault, who last week came out as a champion of freedom of speech.

In a lengthy Facebook post, the father of Bill 21 denounced “radical activists” who are taking censorship of words and works too far, particularly in universities. Legault said he had in mind the University of Ottawa case where a professor was suspended for using the N-word in a history class. “We see a movement coming here from the United States and frankly, I find that it does not resemble us.… What is really worrying is that more and more people are feeling intimidated. They feel forced to censor themselves for fear of being insulted and reported in the public arena.

“Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of our democracy. If we start making compromises on this, we risk seeing the same censorship spill over into our media, into our political debates. No one will dare to talk about immigration, for example, if every time you bring it up, you get shouted nonsense.”

Legault said he’s asked Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann to look into the issue.

As of this writing, Legault’s post had received some 5,600 comments. Presumably none were blocked.

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