Musings from Jordan Graham of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Libertarian City Councillor.
Who's Defending Who?
When a person takes the oath of office to become an elected official, they agree to be judged for their service. When government does something, they will be judged. When government doesn’t do anything, they will be judged. Over the course of a term, they accrue a tally of hits and misses that are finally taken to the electorate and the voters present a ruling. Maybe they are rewarded for their work and re-elected. Maybe they are punished and replaced. An election is society believing that governments should be held accountable for their actions and the citizenry play a critical role by inquiring about the quality of governance they are receiving. The world has seen terrible ideas rejected through this process, and great ideas reinforced.
Long ago, people would only have personal encounters and stories from friends to base their judgments on. Then some societies opted to protect people that convey the activities of governments such as the press. The citizenry received access to government behavior through the media and improved their ability to draw conclusions and form judgments. Democracy was strengthened. Blogs, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook created the most recent explosion of how information is conveyed and presented. Nearly everyone has a cell phone, and most cell phones have cameras and recorders. Pictures, videos and audio-bits capture live events, and people seek to understand what they see and hear. The proliferation of technology has taken us from blurry encounters with government, to intimate interactions where experiences can be relived by millions of people across the world.
The Arab Spring showed us that democracy is desirable when compared to the alternative. We currently see no societies attempting to revolt against democracy. Just ask yourself how many nations that reject democracy are enticing enough to give up living in Canada for good. Generally, the world has improved greatly with democracy. People want the opportunity to change what isn’t good and hold onto what is. This is advancement. What is critical to this equation however, is the need to have space for whistleblowers. Democracy needs a society that allows people to say they don’t like the way things are going, no matter how correct or incorrect the subject of criticism might be.
Underpinning all of this is the courage of the whistleblower; the person who challenges the state because they expect a higher standard from their government. Maybe it is a journalist, or maybe a citizen with an experience. Maybe it’s just an observer. Maybe it is a blogger with a video camera.
But what happens when government, the monopoly of force, no longer wants to be criticized? What happens if government acts against that individual to send a message to them and others who may follow? What happens when governments stifle dissent?
I consider what occurred recently in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the city where I serve as a City Councilor an attack on free speech and the ability to challenge government. Local Blogger Charles Leblanc had his home raided and computer seized by the Fredericton Police Force under what is expected to be the charge of defamatory libel when Leblanc appears in court on April 20th. 2 years ago, Leblanc caught some questionable interactions near the tannery on tape and posted them online. I say questionable, because like myself, many people were shocked by what they saw and wanted an explanation and a court case provided those answers.
Leblanc has been an activist that calls out government on what he thinks is wrong. His comments are colorful and in some cases kooky, but they never incite harm. Why then is the police force flexing muscle 2 years after the incident in question? I have my suspicions, as I am sure that you do as well. Imagine for a second that it was not Charles Leblanc. What if it were a famous humanitarian challenging the police for their actions. Now imagine the humanitarian is taken to task on libel by the very government they were challenging. Wouldn’t we cry bloody murder? We all know government screw up, but from my experience blatant wrong-doings aren't always so. Sometimes things happen that require explanation. But if no one says "hey, wait a minute", the no one gets the explanation. In either case, everyone benefits from having the accountability. The challenge from activists like Leblanc produce either corrections, or explanations. Both are desireable in my books.
Now sure, Leblanc has frustrated a lot of people, but I believe in his sincere goal: he wants tomorrows government to be better than todays, which according to his plan, should be better than yesterdays. Prior to this whole fiasco, he referred to the police as being fascist and operating like the KGB. It sounds crazy coming from him on his bright picket signs, but now it’s less funny
I mean, what are the police doing to show us he’s wrong?
Regardless of the legitimacy the pending charge may have, the damage done by this type of behavior on the part of the FPF could prove to be substantial. Whether it was intended or not, the City of Fredericton is sending a message that nuisances will be silenced, and that people should think twice about taking on the state. After all, if this isn’t a message, then why send 8 officers? Raiding in a situation where literally, the crime is badmouthing someone seems excessive.
The term “libel chill” is used to refer to the effect the laws on defamation have on societal discourse by scaring off harmless and valuable objections. As mentioned, a critical component of effective democracy is the ability to dissent and speak your mind. If people never promote issues to challenge, then government propaganda will be the news. If governments target those who raise flags, people will be too afraid to challenge governments when they’re off mark.
I find this type of behavior to be morally reprehensible and a giant step back for political discourse in Fredericton. We’re all fools if we don’t think the next journalist to call out the police isn’t going to be looking over their shoulder. What does this mean to the quality of information we receive if our journalists are worried about the police? What happens when we make increase the risk of exploiting things that should be talked about and challenged? The stories of governments silencing critics are supposed to trigger stories from the Soviet when challengers disappeared and opposition was intimidated to stay silent. They were not to be reflective of experiences in Canada.
All the progress that we enjoy here in Canada is because of the fact that we have people that can fearlessly stand up and demand better. We have people working to uncover the stories that people don’t want to be told. By protecting their ability to be journalists, or even lunatics about the issues they care for, the pressure remains on the politicians to work toward the goals of the voter.
I personally stand by Charles Leblanc and the important role he plays in politics. We are lucky to have the freedoms we enjoy, but when they come under attack in the most subtle of ways, that is the time to double down and take them back. I chose a world where Charles Leblanc does exactly what he does, especially if the alternative is that government becomes silent to criticism one dissident at a time. There are times when I loathe the very comments he posts, but every November we celebrate the hero’s the lost their lives defending his right to do so.
If the reputation of anyone was truly damaged, have a press conference or do an interview with the media to restore the lost image. This issue needs to be put to bed and sanity needs to be restored to the whole situation. We teach our children in the “sticks and stones” rhyme that name calling shouldn’t hurt us. Let’s maybe for a moment believe it ourselves and stop using force to silence critics.
To paraphrase F.A. Hayek, if you only want freedom when you like the outcome, then you don’t believe in freedom.
Let me leave you with the title of this post: who is defending who? The police are here "to serve and protect", but this act isn't serving anyone but the force itself.