The Case of the 'Traitors': An Essay on Freedom of Speech in Politics

Article excerpt

François Gendron, The Case of the 'Traitors': An Essay on Freedom of Speech in Politics (Montreal: Wilson and Lafleur, 2005), 74pp. Paper. $19.95. ISBN 2-89127-744-9.

Dr Gendron admirably summarises the main thrust of his short book as follows: 'Of all the freedoms, freedom of speech is the most precious. If all the others were lost, freedom of speech would allow us to reclaim them. Therefore citizens must not be deprived of this freedom for the benefit of politicians. It needs to be said: speech may censor the government, but the government must not censor speech.'

Recognising, however, that - like all other citizens - politicians are entitled to honour and consideration, he asks where the limits of freedom of speech in politics should be set. His discussion hinges on cases that came to trial in Canada. Gendron is both a lawyer and a historian, and begins with the trial of Gilles Rheaume and Guy Bouthillier, who published an article in 1981 in Le Devoir accusing Liberal Members of Parliament of having 'betrayed' Quebec and 'collaborated' with English Canada. For this 'treason' they should be 'made to pay'. This statement was followed by a list of Quebec members described as 'representatives of Ottawa' and 'traitors'.

In the ensuing uproar, the article was described as amounting to a call to arms, hatred and retaliation. However, the Superior Court did not agree and refused to prohibit circulation of the text, describing it as being consistent with the standards of Canadian political discourse. The Court of Appeal in 1983 reversed this decision, ruling that the text was excessive in character. There the matter rested until the Superior Court in 1997, passing judgment on a claim for damages by two members of Parliament, declared the text 'a catalyst for violence', sentenced the authors of the article to pay $20,000, and prohibited reproduction of the text in whole or in part. …