Tuesday, October 12, 2010

David Popescu, Hate Speech and Democracy in Greater Sudbury

On the very same day that it was announced that imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize, we here in Greater Sudbury experienced an issue regarding democratic freedoms and how far a democratic society should go in accommodating democratic values. The case here is an interesting one, and for those who are proponents of democracy, it’s also a frustrating one.

Background: 2008 Federal Election

This all started back in 2008, during the last federal election. At that time, independent Sudbury electoral district candidate, David Popescu, made remarks at an all-candidates meeting being hosted at Sudbury Secondary School which were incredibly offensive. Specifically, he advocated for the execution of homosexuals, based on his own interpretation of the Bible. While I wasn’t at the debate, I understand from media reports that the students themselves vocally challenged Popescu in such a way that the debate came to an abrupt end. As an immediate result of these comments, three things happened: the Rainbow District School Board banned Mr. Popescu from attending any further debates; the other candidates running in the election issued a release saying that they would not participate in any further debate with Popescu; the matter of his comments were brought forward to the Sudbury Regional police which then initiated a hate crimes investigation.

Shortly after Popescu made those incendiary remarks, he was asked to clarify what he meant on a Toronto radio show. His further remarks essentially clarified that he believed that the execution of homosexuals should be a state responsibility, and that he wasn’t trying to tell people to indiscriminately kill homosexuals. The radio interview also involved EGALE Canada Executive Director, Helen Kennedy; Popescu pointedly remarked that Ms. Kennedy should be executed because she is a homosexual. These broadcast remarks, made in Toronto, led to a second hate crimes investigation being initiated.

The 2008 federal election came and went, and despite these hate-filled remarks by Popescu, he still managed to capture 80 votes here in Sudbury, to the greater shame of my community. The hate crimes investigations were later transferred to the Provincial Ministry of the Attorney General, and charges were laid against Mr. Popescu. Eventually, after a trial (in which he represented himself), he was convicted of having engaged in hate speech, and received a suspended sentence, and was put on probation for period of 18 months. That was back in August, 2009 (which was actually less than a year from the initial crime being committed).

Background: 2010 Municipal Election

Fast forward to the municipal election now underway here in Greater Sudbury. Residents of all municipalities will be going to the polls to elect new municipal councils on October 25th. David Popescu is this time seeking the position of Mayor. In fact, this is at least the 7th time that Popescu has put his name forward seeking a position of public office, whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level of government.

On Wednesday, October 6th, Mr. Popescu, along with Greater Sudbury mayoralty candidates John Rodriguez (incumbent Mayor), Ted Callaghan (current councillor for Ward 8), Derek Young and Edward Pokonzie, participated in a town hall discussion hosted by a new organization known as Good Green Questions. The Good Green Town Hall was held at Tom Davies Square that evening, between 7 and 9 pm. All candidates listed as running for Mayor were invited to participate in the Town Hall. Prior to the town hall, Good Green Questions had sent a questionnaire to all of the candidates for mayor, for completion in advance of the town hall meeting; candidates Rodriguez, Callaghan, Young and Popescu all provided responses.

3 of the listed mayoralty candidates did not attend the Good Green Town Hall, nor did they provide responses to the questions. Of these 3 candidates, 2 have been pretty much missing in action since the election commenced. The third, however, Marianne Matichuk, has been aggressively campaigning for the position of Mayor. Ms. Matichuk, although she did not complete the Good Green Questions questionnaire, did indicate to the event organizers that she would be unable to participate in town hall as a result of a prior commitment. On the same day as the town hall, Matichuk released her “Green Vision” for Greater Sudbury via a local media outlet’s blog site (the Sudbury Star’s site).

The Good Green Town Hall proved to be an interesting, if somewhat uninspiring, affair ("uninspiring" given the answers offered to the questions!). With regards to Popescu, he didn’t end up saying anything which could be construed as being hate speech. Having said that, he used the Good Green Questions Town Hall as a further opportunity to advance his bible-based interpretation of what the community needs to do to rid itself of sin, and thus improve its standing in the eyes of the Creator. While he at least tried to tie his message to that of the environment and green economy, despite his assertions that climate change is a manifestation of the Creator’s punishment, he failed significantly to provide any serious answers to questions put to him. In my opinion, Popescu’s participation in this debate proved to be a waste of everybody’s time, including his own.

On Friday, October 8th, the Matichuk campaign posted on the Sudbury Star’s blog site a letter they had written to the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce with regards to Popescu’s planned participation in the Chamber’s debate, taking place on Thursday, October 14th, also at Tom Davies Square. Matichuk expressed concern with the Chamber’s invitation to Popescu, who has engaged in hate speech during an election campaign in the past. She called for Popescu to be banned from the Chamber’s debate (although she also indicated that she respected that this decision was for the Chamber to make, and that she would participate with or without Popescu’s presence at the debate).

In an article published in Friday’s Sudbury Star, "Bar Popescu, Matichuk says", Debbie Nicholson, President and CEO of the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, indicated that it has been the Chamber’s longstanding practice to invite all nominated individuals to its debate, and that this practice was not going to change.

An editorial appearing in the Sudbury Star on the same day called for banning Popescu from public debates, because he is not a serious candidate, and ends up detracting from public discourse.

I, as a private citizen interested in democracy, wrote a letter to Debbie Nicholson, offering my support of the Chamber’s position to continue to insist that Popescu be invited to the public forum. I copied my letter to all of the mayoralty candidates. I received an initial response from candidate Young, which he had copied to the Chamber, which expressed his support for the Chamber’s position. I eventually received a response from the Matichuk campaign, which had been copied to some of our local media. In response to the Matichuk campaign’s reply, I provided a further response, which I also copied to the local media. My original letter to the Chamber is posted here on my blogsite.

The Issues

There are a couple of issues here, a few of which are important; the other one is instructive to those engaged in any political process. I’ll offer my opinion on those important issues in this blogpost, and I may return to the politically instructive one in another post. I don’t want to leave any confusion in the reader’s mind regarding what’s really important here, versus what’s just an interesting political tactic.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this situation since this issue came up on Friday. In short, I believe that there isn’t any one good answer here. I agree with many in my community that Popescu is a waste of time, and that there remains a high probability that, despite being on probation, he may engage in hate speech directed towards homosexuals again. Certainly, it is abundantly clear to me that Popescu uses election processes to bring attention to his pet issues; attention that he would otherwise have no way of getting. In the last election, his pet issues ventured into the territory of hate speech. Although he was charged and convicted, based on recent comments he has made to the Sudbury Star, it doesn’t appear that he’s changed his position on killing homosexuals (although his recent comments were a little more cagey).

I can understand that there are those in this City who want nothing more to do with Popescu. I’m certainly one of them. I sincerely wish that this hate-filled man would go away.

Some have suggested that the best way to deal with this man is to silence him. Certainly, there are a few mayoralty debates which are being hosted by local media where I understand that Popescu has not been invited to attend.

The concerns raised specifically by Matichuck and her campaign team are, in my opinion, valid. Popescu has proven himself to be someone who will engage in hate speech. He uses public debates to advance his own agenda. Why should we continue to provide this man a venue for his (potentially hate-filled) rants?

In my letter to the Chamber of Commerce, I weighed in with my own opinion regarding why it is important that we continue to afford Popescu, and others like him, the opportunity to speak – with the caveat that speech can not venture into the realm of hate speech. The problem with my approach, though, is that you can only ever address the issue after the fact. You can only ever lay charges against Popescu after he crosses the line between free speech and hate speech.

I’m obviously troubled by this. Yet I must continue to maintain that in the interests of democracy, Popescu be afforded equal opportunity to engage the public. He has a right to run in an election. He has the right to advance his platform. He should also have the same rights to be permitted to access the public.

Now, that’s important. That’s not the same as having an equal right to access the public as other candidates. Certainly in our electoral system, those with greater money and media exposure and larger campaign teams will have a greater ability to access the public than those with less of all of those things. Instead, what I’m talking about here is that all candidates should be afforded an equal opportunity to access the public. Whether (or even if) they can act on the opportunity will be for the candidate and their team to decide.

This means that things like a voter’s list should never be denied a candidate, no matter what kind of vile track record that candidate might have. Candidate’s names should appear on a ballot (and not have to be written in). I don’t think that there are many Canadians who would disagree with this form of access.

Now, what about access to participate in a public debate or meeting? Here’s where things get a little trickier. Certainly, it would seem that organizers of these sorts of events can exercise some discretion, although I would continue to argue that if there are some who are standing for public office who don’t receive an invitation to participate, we are not doing all that we can in terms of democracy. When we limit participation, we always diminish democracy.

But sometimes it’s necessary. What if, based on the sheer number of candidates alone, it’s simply not practical to engage everybody? Shouldn’t event organizers try to undertake that which is likely in the interests of a majority of the voters, and limit invitations? We certainly see this happen in practice. What needs to be kept in mind, though, as the event organizers, by limiting participation, are not providing a complete service to the public. Nevertheless, even an incomplete service could be considered better than no service at all.

Ultimately, these are issues which event organizers have to wrestle with. These decisions might also ultimately impact where an event is held. You see, if you’re going to hold a debate at a publicly-funded location, such as a City Hall, public library or other municipal facility, I would strongly suspect that the municipality is going to require an event organizer to invite all registered candidates. For example, in the case of David Popescu, he pays his taxes to the City of Greater Sudbury, just as I do, and just as the other candidates to do. If something like a Good Green Town Hall or a Chamber of Commerce debate are going to use City Hall as their venue, it would be highly inappropriate to not invite all candidates, even if they have used debates to engage in hate speech in the past. Unless a specific candidate has been legally banned from setting foot into City Hall, the City’s doors must be open.

That alone isn’t an argument to continue to invite Popescu to debates. Certainly, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce is free to change its venue, and to then invite whomever it pleases. I continue to be glad that they have not done so, however, based on my view that democracy can be a messy business, and we have to take the good with the bad.

Compromising Our Democracy

In reading some of the comments which have been provided (in most cases anonymously) on the Sudbury Star’s website, both for and against the inclusion of Popescu in public debates, it’s been suggested that there need to be further restrictions placed on our democratic processes in order to protect us from people like Popescu. I recall one commenter who indicated that we should be teaching democratic values to our children, yet here we are exposing them to Popescu’s hate speech. Some believe that the problem is with our democracy, which is too free and permissive in terms of who is eligible to run in an election.

Of course, further restricting the opportunity for candidates to run in an election might be worth consideration. Already, we restrict people from running in an election by providing rules which require a certain amount of cash being made available upfront (in the case of federal elections, you’ve got to pay $1,000). This financial requirement is a significant impediment to democratic engagement, especially for the poorest of us who might otherwise think of running for public office. I’m not sure when economic wealth equated with having good ideas, but clearly this restriction remains one endorsed by our society. Age, of course, is another restriction, and again, I’m not sure that good ideas are found only in those over the age of 18.

Given that we have restrictions in place already, it’s easy to see why some would call for further restrictions, especially when faced with the likes of a horrible individual like Popescu. Yes, calls for further compromising our democracy obviously have resonance in these situations. But that’s not the answer. It’s not the answer, because the problem isn’t with democracy, or with our democratic processes.

The problem is with David Popescu, and others who choose to abuse our democratic processes for their own ends.

And that’s a problem for which there isn’t any easy solution. As long as Popescu and others who are filled with hate exist in our society, they are likely going to abuse our democratic institutions for their own ends. Their existence, however, doesn’t mean that we need to force ourselves to change. We’re not doing anything wrong by having a democratic system in which to practice a democratic electoral process.

Our system is already considerably imperfect. I, for one, certainly believe that change is needed. But not the sort of change which further disenfranchises voters and candidates. We should not stand for change which further diminishes our democratic institutions. That applies even in circumstances where the likes of a David Popescu continues to be afforded an opportunity to abuse democracy.

Some have suggested that because I believe that standing up for democracy is more important that banishing Popescu from having a forum to spew his hatred, that I am supporting Popescu. Let me be clear about this: I am not supporting Popescu. I think that Popescu is vile, and I am angry that he chooses to abuse our democratic proccesses, by using elections to engage in unincompromising discourse. His hate-speech activities during the 2008 federal election were vile, and in my opinion, he didn't receive enough of a punishment from our legal system. Again, just because I support Popescu's right to participate in the democratic process, it does not mean that I support Popescu.

Democracy is bigger, far bigger, than the likes of David Popescu. We shouldn’t be afraid of confronting those who are filled with hate. We should not call for further diminishment of our democratic institutions in the name of protecting ourselves from the possibility of hate (or whatever). Instead, we together can easily rise above Popescu, safe and secure in the knowledge that democracy is paramount, and certainly worth fighting for.

Just ask Liu Xiaobo his opinion of whether democracy is an institution worth fighting for. I think that he might be able to offer an interesting and instructive perspective. That, of course, is if his government ever allows him the opportunity to speak his mind again.

*Updated* (10:08 PM) - I've just learned that tonight's Northern Life / Eastlink debate is taking place at Tom Davies Square. So much for my theory about debates being held at taxpayer-funded public venues having to extend invitations to all candidates! Although I really should check my source's accuracy regarding whether Popescu was invited or not. If he wasn't invited, I think I owe my readers an explanation as to why. I'll get back to everybody on this.


Chris KN said...

I think you give far too much weight to this man and his position. Democracy entails that he has a right to run, but I don't see how independent organizations holding debates have any obligation to let him speak.

He abused his platform in the previous provincial election and has been seemingly unrepentant about it. He has abdicated his right to be given a pulpit and I'm disappointed that he has continued to be invited to candidate forums.

What's more shockingly disappointing to me is that he can somehow be held up as a victim of anti-free-speech or a measuring stick by which to gauge the health of our democracy because people suggest that he should not be given the opportunity to speak at an event put on by a private group.

Matichuk was equally wrong to take her pantomime routine about Popescu to the public sphere. Now we have a fringe candidate (who probably needs some sort of intervention) taking up a place in the public debate that he neither warrants nor deserves. The next time he crosses a line, I hope that the organization that has invited him to speak takes on at least part of the responsibility.

Sudbury Steve said...

Chris, as always, I appreciate your comments. I believe Popescu is an absolute waste of time, and generally a poor excuse for a human being. I don't, however, see what's going on as a defense of Popescu, but I understand that others do.

I also appreciate that private organizations are under no restrictions regarding who they can invite to a debate or public forum. However, what if that event is held in a public venue, such as City Hall, whose upkeep is paid for by our collective tax dollars?

The recent Eastlink/Northern Life debate took place at Tom Davies Square. I understand that both David Popescu and Ed Pokonzie were not invited to attend that debate. Likely because the organizers of the debate wanted to offer Sudburians an opportunity to watch and engage only those candidates who realistically have a chance of getting elected. While I'm not sure by whose yardstick such a "realistic chance" is measured, I also believe that the organizers got it right as far as determining Popescu and Pokonzie have no hope of being elected Mayor.

That being said, how is organizing a showcase for only some of the candidates at all inclusive, especially given the fact that this debate took place at a taxpayer funded venue?

The organizers of this debate, I believe, were providing a service...yes, to the public, but also one to their hand-picked candidates. Certainly they provided no service to Popescu or Pokonzie by excluding them.

I alway understood that when public venues are used for election purposes, that equal access should be given to all. Maybe I'm wrong about this understanding. What I can tell you, though, is it appears that equal access was likely never contemplated by Tuesday's debate organizersm, if in fact they failed to invite Popescu and Pokonzie. I believe Pokonzie stated last night that he had not been invited to the Northern Life/Eastlink debate.

Hmm...providing a service to some candidates, but not others. Kind of like when you give money to some candidates, but not others. Money, service, goods...when given with discrimination to some in preference to others...that's kind of like a campaign contribution, no? And since a municipality can't contribute to anyone's campaign, seems to me like ensuring equal access should be paramount.

Those are just my thoughts.

Chris KN said...

It was interesting to me that they included Derek Young while excluding the other two, to be honest. This suggests that it didn't have to do with the chance of winning, because Derek has he same chance of winning and little visible support.