An arrest last October on a downtown Ottawa street drew very little media attention. I was fortunate enough to learn about it by reading Fr. Raymond DeSouza’s column in the National Post. As the man charged was a Catholic priest, one might assume the worst. But 83-year-old Fr. Anthony Van Hee’s crime was sitting on a chair over four days. According to DeSouza, Van Hee “never spoke to anyone, or engaged with anyone. He did not hand out literature. He did not impede passage.” The elderly priest was wearing a sandwich board that read: “The Primacy of Free Speech: Cornerstone of Western Civilization.”
Nothing wrong with that. Who would disagree with the importance of free speech? Our constitution guarantees free speech, even though constitutions can’t really guarantee anything if there is no will to enforce. On the back of the sign were another eight words: “Without free speech, the state is a corpse.”
Well, nothing wrong with that either, except that the sandwich board was enough for two police officers to lead Fr. Anthony Van Hee to a waiting cruiser.
The priest was ridiculously charged with “intimidating or attempting to intimidate” people who might be seeking or providing an abortion as there is an abortion clinic situated on the same street. How intimidating it must have been to see a slightly-built and elderly priest sitting quietly. After some serious consideration, the charge was reduced to “informing or attempting to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services” and “performing or attempting to perform an act of disapproval concerning issues related to abortion services.”
Of course, Fr. Van Hee did none of these things and even if he had, so what? What happened to free speech? Most people do not realize that, for years now, Ontario has had a bubble-zone law preventing protests against abortion near abortion clinics. It’s an unconstitutional law but who wants to fight that one all the way to the liberal-stacked left-leaning supreme court? Incidentally, Fr. Van Hee didn’t even contravene the bubble-zone law as he didn’t protest against abortion.
The point here is that for Fr. Van Hee, his free speech is only partially free. This isn’t Saudi Arabia or China, not yet anyway. But anyone who thinks we Canadians enjoy unhindered freedom of speech, has never been on a Canadian university campus. Parents with kids in universities, colleges and high schools hear the stories of the intimidation against those foolhardy students who dare to disagree with the “right” answer. We know the case of a Wilfrid Laurier university teaching assistant who was reprimanded for playing five minutes of a TV news program in class because it included internationally-renowned Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. It seems she failed to warn students that Peterson’s words should be compared to Hitler’s. She secretly recorded her reprimand, providing her and Peterson the ammunition to separately sue the university. I hope they both win.
You can rightfully sue for defamation of character in this country, as everyone is entitled to his or her good reputation. Freedom of speech about ideas is another matter. This freedom is necessary for ideas to flourish, even if I don’t agree with you or you don’t agree with me.
But increasingly, for the most vocal of the American and Canadian left, and that includes much of the news media, the only speech that should be free, is speech that agrees with their own. We’re in dangerous territory.
Who will fight back?
Apparently, the 83-year-old priest is one of the few good men. Fr. Van Hee is making a formal challenge to the constitutionality of a free-speech-restricted public safe space. He is also wearing his sandwich board again and is sitting quietly on the same downtown Ottawa street — only this time he’s a little farther away.
Patrick Meagher is editor of Farmers Forum newspaper and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org