John Ralston Saul,
Joseph Howe & the Battle for Freedom of Speech
(Gaspereau Press, 2006)

A formal lecture is as much about the speaker as it is about the material being presented. This paper was first delivered as the inaugural Joseph Howe lecture at the University of King's College School of Journalism in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on March 20, 2004. The conference marked the 200th anniversary of Howe's birthday as well as the 25th year for the School of Journalism. Naturally, John Ralston Saul, a noted Canadian author and speaker, chose Howe as his main focus. But he also offered personal advice and observations from his own years of writing experience to the students and academics who attended the session that morning.

Halifax itself was a key settlement in establishing Canadian democracy and freedom of speech, and Howe (1804-1873) played a major role in both efforts. The poet and journalist bought the Novascotian newspaper in 1828, and is most often remembered for his involvement in a trial that took place seven years later. At that time, Howe was charged with criminal libel for criticizing local officials. He spoke for more than six hours in his own defense and was acquitted. Soon afterward, he entered the field of politics where, in that time before Confederation, he worked for establishing and improving services like post offices, trains and schools. According to Saul, "If the triangular foundation of Canada is aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone, so the essential triangle of Canadian democracy is Howe, [Louis] LaFontaine, and [Robert] Baldwin." Americans may see in Howe some similarities to Horace Greeley (1811-1872), founder and long-time editor of the New York Tribune, who dabbled in politics and eventually lost the 1872 U.S. presidential election to Ulysses S. Grant. Howe and Greeley even carry some physical resemblance, if you compare their photographs.

Those must have been incredible days. Howe and his contemporaries lived shorter lives than we do today, yet felt the need and ease to debate issues for hours upon hours. We live longer, have better education and more free time than our ancestors, yet our communications boil down to media sound-bites, "tiny fractions of ideas endlessly repeated." Real debate, and not just a tennis match of opposites, rarely goes on today.

And yet, according to Saul, citizens want to participate in debate. "Democracy is dependent on people going into halls and being together." (Which explains the New England affection for town meetings.) "That is what gives them the real freedom to speak and to be heard." What bothers him most, though, is that these public gatherings are rarely reported on in the media, especially when they are held just to hear a noted speaker or to focus upon a single topic. And why? Because they're not within "the official structures of power." It is the speaker's opinion that the more the media ignores these assemblies, the less influence the media will ultimately wield.

One of the problems of contemporary society is "that there are too many facts and we can't make sense of them." Specialization and presumed secrecy have added to the fragmentation of communication. No one is able to get the true meaning out of it all, and we're left with the basics. Society also treats us as if we're in a rush, and we treat ourselves as if we're in a rush. The level of urgency is such that it seems "we must be told certain things 25 times over in summaries of four to six words within the next 12 hours or we may die unsatisfied." And what is reported on is far from complete coverage. Television cameras at the House of Commons focus only on the speakers, and the public doesn't have an opportunity to see the rest of the auditorium -- to take note of how many people are there, what their reactions are, who is sleeping, etc. Citizens should be able to witness the goings-on as if they were there themselves so they can form their own opinions.

We need the facts, but we also need ideas. In fact, ideas should take a higher priority, because they drive democracies. That notion takes us back to Howe, LaFontaine and Baldwin, and their ability to debate. Our media today focuses more on facts and not the ideas behind them. Information has been "professionalized" by the establishment of access to information laws; and employment contracts limit what people can say and do in their areas of expertise. Saul criticized the U.S. government for publicly announcing it creates about 6 million new secrets every year. "How could that possibly add to the functioning of a democratic community?" he asked.

Freedom of speech is the foundation of democracy. "[F]reedoms of speech and press are based upon principles and aided by laws, but nevertheless, they need to be defended and indeed reconquered on a day-to-day basis." Citing Canada's strong tradition of investigative journalism, Saul encouraged students to re-read the Canadian Charter of Rights. Journalists face ethical issues every day, he told them, and they should know how to handle those issues before they're on the job. "[W]hatever the state of our debate on freedom of speech and freedom of the press today, it is in fact the outcome of two centuries of debate in Canada on the nature of freedom of the press."

Joseph Howe & the Battle for Freedom of Speech is a small book with much to say. Its message is applicable to all citizens living in the 21st century, not just Canadians. It forces us to consider the past -- the Canadian past -- which we can apply to our own lives, no matter where we live. It can be an eye-opening read for ethnocentric Americans who never gave much thought to how Canada became a country, let alone how freedom of speech was established there. Odds are good that anyone coming across this booklet will want to learn more about Joseph Howe and rediscover the history of Canada referred to here. Saul's words also cause us to think about recent incidents where the boundaries of political correctness and freedom of speech overlapped or collided. Do we still even have freedom of speech?

Saul has authored numerous books about philosophy and contemporary politics, and he won the 1996 Governor General's Award for nonfiction for The Unconscious Civilization. He is the former president of Canadian PEN, a writer's organization. In 1999, Saul married long-time companion Adrienne Clarkson, who at the time of this speech was the Governor General of Canada.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

14 July 2007

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