Opinion: Can freedom of speech survive Harper’s new anti-terrorism laws?

Prime Minster Steven Harper recently laid out his plans for a new ‘tough on terrorism’ strategy that will make promotion of terrorism a criminal act.

“These measures are designed to help authorities stop planned attacks, get threats off of our streets, criminalize the promotion of terrorism, and prevent terrorists from traveling and recruiting others,” the Conservative party leader announced during what the CP calls a “campaign style event” in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 30.

An internal review of last fall’s Parliament Hill shooting of Corporal Nathan Cirillo concluded that Canada lacks suitable laws to fight against extremists encouraging acts of terrorism against the Canadian public.

But why should we trust Harper’s judgement?  This is the man who recently insisted that a drop in oil prices won’t hurt Canada’s economy despite the fact that oil is one of the country’s two top earning commodities. How is he qualified to determine what constitutes ‘suitable’ in the war on terror?

And that is where an even larger question presents itself- can freedom of speech survive Harper’s new anti-terrorism laws?

Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of speech. But what if that speech is speaking out against the cartoon depiction of Mohammad by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon?

Following the January 7 attacks by jihadists against the magazine, French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala was arrested and charged with ‘apologies for terrorism’ after writing on his wall that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly”, a meld of the slogan “I am Charlie” and the name of one of the gunmen in the incident, Amedy Coulibaly.

This is a clear incidence of the over-zealous application of laws designed, with good intent, to keep the public safe.

Terrorism is terrible, no one is debating this. But how do we draw the line between what constitutes terrorism and what falls within the boundaries of freedom of speech? And this is where the slippery slope begins.

In the past, other figures we now recognize as heroes were considered terrorists by the governments of their time.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on charges of committing sabotage against the apartheid government of South Africa. He was such a danger to the public that he was sentenced to be locked up for the rest of his life.

Today, Mandela is known around the world as his country’s first black president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is not an argument in support of ISIS manifesting its dream of a caliphate.

If freedom of speech is restricted when applied to topics that might be construed as promoting terrorism, it also prevents the kind of discussions that could lead to non-military solutions to the issues of jihadism.

But then maybe that’s the real point of the new laws.

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