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In both countries, the restraints on speech have since been softened, but the concessions have been modest, and Canada’s Supreme Court has clearly indicated a wish to retain the new speech regime in full.
This slow erosion of freedom of expression has come about in ways both social and legal.
Fear, cowardice and rationalization spread outward. Twenty-five years later, we can look back on a long series of similar events, including: the 2002 anti-Christian riots in Nigeria, in which more than 200 people were killed because a local tabloid had facetiously suggested that Miss World contestants would make suitable brides for Muhammad; the 2004 murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for his movie “Submission,” in which passages from the Quran were printed on women’s bodies; the riots in Denmark and throughout the Middle East in 2005 in response to the publication of cartoons of Muhammad by a Danish magazine; the murder threats against Dutch politician Geert Wilders for his 2008 film “Fitna,” which interleaved passages from the Quran with clips of jihadist violence.
Muslim worshippers in Baghdad, Iraq, denounce Denmark after a Danish magazine ran cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Feb. Associated Press These events were threats to free speech, however, not only in themselves but also because they intimidated people and private organizations and gave governments an excuse to restrict free media.
It isn’t just some Muslims who want the false comfort of censoring disagreeable opinions. Gays, Christians, feminists, patriots, foreign despots, ethnic activists—or organizations claiming to speak for them—are among the many groups seeking relief from the criticism of others through the courts, the legislatures and the public square.
A human rights tribunal in Canada imposed a lifetime ban on sermonizing about homosexuality on a clergyman who had similarly offended.
Since the 18th century, the basic legal justifications for restricting political speech and publication were direct incitement to harm, national security, maintaining public order, libel, etc.
Content wasn’t supposed to be considered (though it was sometimes smuggled in under other headings).
Freedom of political speech, however, was regarded as sacrosanct by all.
As legal restraints on obscenity fell away, however, freedom of political speech began to come under attack from a different kind of censor—college administrators, ethnic-grievance groups, gay and feminist advocates.