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The Great Debates: LaBarbera Unjustly Arrested?

Does this merit calling the police?/ Sarah Taguiam
Does this merit calling the police?/ Sarah Taguiam

Participants: Derek Cameron and Sebastien Potvin

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PRO

Derek Cameron – Contributor

Freedom has its limits. Peter LaBarbera’s expulsion from the U of R campus was a right judgment in just what those limits are.

LaBarbera is an anti-gay rights and pro-life advocate. While at the U of R, LaBarbera handed out pamphlets on the “evils of homosexuality.” As a result, the U of R had him taken off the premises. Something some believe attacks his freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to tear others down and deny their human rights. By exercising this illusion of “freedom of speech,” one infringes on others much more valuable right: the right to be who they are, the right to exist. LaBarbera’s views are his own and he can keep them. God knows I don’t want his views. But by inciting hate against a group of people, LaBarbera went too far. He went beyond his rights and flouted his responsibility to have respectful dialogue.

“By exercising this illusion of “freedom of speech,” one infringes on others much more valuable right: the right to be who they are, the right to exist.”

Would anyone blink in arresting someone for saying that African-Americans should be put back into slavery? No, because that prospect seems so ridiculous. Everyone has the right to be who they are. If someone pulled that stunt, arrest would seem warranted. The only reason we are discussing this is because gay rights are still not completely accepted. LaBarbera finds himself in a shrinking group of people who are becoming more and more radicalized and afraid because their long-standing beliefs are being challenged. His hate speech comes from a place of fear and change, a place of isolation. It’s the case of the world moving forward and LaBarbera failing to move with it.

So, then, why is it right to take police action against him? Simple. The right to free speech exists; the right to be treated as human exists. But, one right does not exist: the right to incite hatred and to harm others. By presenting his anti-gay rights propaganda, he asserts that homosexuals do not have the right to exist. And he goes further. He invites others to join in on his views. If the world were as intolerant of homosexuals as he is, I would hate to see how the world would treat homosexuals and I believe that it would be systematic repression or worse. Effectively, this repression imprisons those who have committed no crime. His actions are attacks on large groups of people.

So why is his freedom to be restricted? Shouldn’t LaBarbera have the same rights? No. Homosexuals are not guilty of anything other than existing. LaBarbera is guilty of choosing to hate homosexuals. Violent hate is not a freedom anyone is afforded. When someone abuses someone else, they are taken to court. LaBarbera has gone beyond freedom of speech. His freedom of speech includes abuse, a criminal offence. And unlike some abusers, he is unrepentant.

Saskatchewan was the first region in North America to put in place laws that forbid hate propaganda. In 1947, this realized a necessary restriction to free speech.  Free speech is not a license to say every thought that comes to mind, to flagrantly display hateful behaviour. The U of R’s decision to kick LaBarbera out upholds this tradition of protecting those victimized for their race, sex, nationality, and sexual orientation.

While many may look at this incident as an attack on human rights, I see it as an affirmation of human rights, an affirmation of a right LaBarbera pretends to support. This is less about freedom of speech and more about what the speech represents, violence, hatred, and abuse. This is less about an exercise in freedom and more about an exercise in determining what is acceptable behaviour by anyone in any place.

 

CONTRA

Sebastien Potvin – Contributor

There is a multifaceted answer on whether or not the University of Regina was right in calling the police to remove Peter LaBarbera and his colleague from U of R property. On rights of ownership grounds, of course the U of R was well within appropriate bounds to ask this man to leave the premises, as he was not permitted “table-space.” This is a normal process; we cannot let anyone and everyone clog up our space. However, my issue comes with the rationale of not allowing LaBarbera space. My argument is that this man, and therefore his message, had just as much a right of being heard than anyone else, and should not have been denied entry based on his message.

Let me clarify something here: I do not condone his message, nor do I come anywhere near to sympathizing with his disparaging anti-gay activism. It’s a medieval spirit, frankly. As the aphorism by Voltaire goes, I disapprove of what he says, but I defend his right to say it.

Firstly, there is the issue of judging the content of a message. I realize that free speech in this country is protected, but only to the extent that it does not incite hate or violence – that is to say, we have rights as far as they do not infringe on the rights of others. I admit that LaBarbera’s and his organization’s anti-gay rhetoric reaches this definition of hate, and that within these bounds it is justified to remove him. But this empowers the speaker with a sense of justice. It encourages him to see righteousness in his cause, as the authorities rather than the people themselves are silencing him. It is the duty of the social horde to shun or encourage, and in a way, police their own – not the authorities.

Secondly, forcefully silencing the lone hater shows that there is a powerful significance to his message; otherwise we would not bother to stop it. The odd person who is on the fence with regards to the message risks seeing merit in it, if only because they do not get a chance to listen to the voice of reason in defense the LGBT community. If LaBarbera and his message of hate cannot be successfully defended or countered by oratory and reason, then there is a problem with our own understanding of the issue. Listening to the obscene and ridiculous forces us to inform ourselves to defend against it. In this case, it is not enough to say ‘LaBarbera, you are villainous and hateful: leave.’ That hardly explains your own position, and demonstrates a lazy attitude in your own willingness defend your ideas. For example, to counter a Holocaust denier, you need to be informed yourself to counter myth with fact. If you are ignorant of history and fact, you will (I guarantee it) lose your debate. The same is true for informing yourself on homosexuality.

“If LaBarbera and his message of hate cannot be successfully defended or countered by oratory and reason, then there is a problem with our own understanding of the issue.”

Thirdly, removing LaBarbera by force denies the audience their sovereign right to counter the message. I contend that LaBarbera would have been far more embarrassed, fatigued, frustrated, and infinitely more defeated if he would have been confronted by us, the students, instead of the police. How much more symbolic would it have been for his audience to argue back in defense of their own friends and family; to show that reason, with the above argument that rationale is also necessary, is the driving force behind a university. To say an argument is offensive is not enough. You have to back it up not with regulations, but with public pressure.

LaBarbera’s message is crazy. We all know that. Next time, let’s show him, and others like him, that ours is an open and diverse university, and that such narrow-mindedness is no longer acceptable. But let us do it with words rather than handcuffs.

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