This blog post isn’t about “free speech”. That’s something that’s guaranteed individuals and organizations in our nation, as per the Charter. What I’m writing about today is our level of tolerance for those who preach hate – be it messages of misogyny, homophobia/transphobia, or against people of an identifiable group based on ethnicity or religion. Unfortunately (and that’s an understatement), this kind of hate has crept into our civil political discourse to such an extent now that it seems like it might be an impossible task to excise it.
But if we don’t stand up to combat hate, what does that say about us? This isn’t something that we can remain silent about, even though speaking out can lead to be doxed and targeted by the people and groups who preach hate. When we speak out against hate, we put ourselves and our families at risk. All for what appears to be an impossible task.
And yet, what other choice to we have? If we remain silent, the haters win.
I refuse to remain silent. And I am pleased to see so many others who have reached the same conclusion. Hate has no place in our society. And it has no place in our political discourse.
Today, Facebook announced that it was removing pages and accounts belonging to known extremists like former Toronto Mayoral candidate Faith Goldy (see: "Facebook bans Faith Goldy and 'dangerous' alt-right groups," CBC News, April 8, 2019). Extremists groups also being banned include the Soldiers of Odin – an organization that has received the support of at least two Greater Sudbury municipal councillors who have never apologized to citizens for supporting a hate group (see: "Promoting Bigotry, Racism and Misogyny in Greater Sudbury, Part 1: The Ever-Changing Public Realm," and "Promoting Bigotry, Racism and Misogyny in Greater Sudbury, Part 2: Time to Talk About Taxpayer-Subsidized Discrimination," Sudbury Steve May, September 13, 2017, and "Candidates at odds over Soldiers of Odin in Sudbury," the Sudbury Star, August 28, 2018).
Facebook is making a good start - one other online platforms like Twitter ought to be emulating. That there remain leaders and followers in the world of social media illustrates the point: we can’t just rely on the efforts of corporate entities like Facebook to deny haters a podium from which to preach hate. We all have a role to play.
Let's Start Here.
It’s with that in mind that I am directing this blog to organizers of political debates – not just here in Greater Sudbury, but throughout the nation. That said, I will focus on the situation here in my community – where debate organizers have long provided a podium to all of the candidates, no matter what their track record for hate has been. And oh boy, we have one perennial candidate here who has amassed quite the track record.
I first heard about David Popescu from my friend Gordon Harris, who was the Green Party’s candidate in Sudbury during the 2008 election. Gordon had attended an all-candidate’s meeting at Sudbury Secondary School, and Popescu was there as well, as an independent candidate. During the debate at the highschool, Popescu advocated for the execution of homosexuals – which caused a significant commotion among the students present, and an abrupt end to the debate. Later in the same election campaign, while on a Toronto radio show for an interview about the Sudbury Sec debate, Popescu reiterated his earlier position on executing homosexuals in general, and pointed to radio show guest Helen Kennedy, Executive Director of EGALE Canada, and specifically called for her execution (see: "Sudbury candidate probed after 2nd anti-gay remark," CTV News, October 7, 2008).
After an investigation by Greater Sudbury Police, the Minister of the Attorney General charged Popescu with a hate crime. Popescu was convicted in August, 2009 for having engaged in hate speech. He received a suspended sentence, and was put on probation for an 18 month period.
In 2015, Popescu was charged with promoting genocide and the wilful promotion of hatred after leaving home-made compact discs and pamphlets on people’s cars parked in the downtown, outside of a venue where a CBC Radio debate for provincial by-election candidates was taking place. Popescu had not been invited to the debate. Charges were later dropped (see: "David Popescu hate crime charges dropped by Crown," CBC News, December 30, 2015).
In the 2018 municipal election, at an all-candidates meeting for Mayoral candidates hosted by Laurentian University Political Science Association, Popescu’s microphone was repeatedly cut off as he tried (and succeeded, but without audio assistance) in making hateful remarks about French-speaking peoples, LGBTQ and indigenous students at Laurentian.
After his disgusting display at Laurentian University, Greater Sudbury Mayor (and mayoral candidate) Brian Bigger called on the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce to not allow Popescu to participate in the Chamber’s upcoming debate (see: "Mayoral race: Bigger wants fellow candidate banned from campaign events over ‘hate’ speech," Sudbury dot com, October 1, 2018).
|Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger|
“Anyone who calls for the extermination of homosexuals and runs in elections time and time again to promote hatred in the name of religion needs to be shown the door and not given a microphone,” Bigger said in a release.
Bigger made it clear that his objection to Popescu had nothing whatsoever to do with free speech. “Obviously he has the right to pay $200 and run in the election, and he’s participated in every federal, provincial and municipal election that he could to get a podium and microphone in front of him. But this is not about free speech. This is saying we don’t have to listen to speeches about hatred.”
Other Greater Sudbury mayoral candidates rallied around Mayor Brian Bigger, and also called on the Chamber to….
Oh wait a minute. No. That didn’t actually happen. To the collective shame of my community, not one single candidate for Mayor came out in support of Bigger’s call to the Chamber of Commerce to deny a podium to Popescu from which he could continue to preach hate (see: "Bid to ban controversial candidate in Sudbury fails," the Sudbury Star, October 2, 2018).
Free speech. Fairness. Democracy. These were the reasons cited by Mayoral candidates who believed that - although odious in the extreme - Popescu, because he was a registered candidate in the election, had the right to participate in debates. No one appears to have had the chance to point out to the candidates that there is no such right - and that debate organizers who are considering not inviting candidates who preach hate are under no obligation to do so.
"As a former journalist, freedom of speech is very important to me. I respect the debate organizers' right to choose the candidates they select to participate at their events," said candidate Patricia Mills.
"We have a democratic process and Mr. Popescu paid the fee, filled out all appropriate documents and had enough names to get nominated. He deserves a seat at the table," said candidate Jeff Huska (see: "Bigger finds no support in his bid to ban Popescu from campaign events," Sudbury dot com, October 2, 2018).
My good friend, Bill Crumplin, who was one of 11 people running for Mayor in the 2018 election, took a particularly misguided view on the matter, and called for police to be in attendance at public debates, so as not to put debate organizers in the position of having to police what’s said at debates (see: "Mayoral race: Not fair to ask debate organizers to ban Popescu, says Crumplin," Sudbury dot com, October 2 2018). At the time, I told Bill that having police attend political forums to monitor speech might be counter-productive for everyone involved.
Hate Speech is Like Toothpaste
Look, hate speech is like toothpaste. Once it’s out, you can’t just cram it back into the tube. I understand that police might be able to haul someone away from a public event based on the words that they say – but I’ll tell you this, if you’re concerned at all about free speech, I don’t think that’s a road that we want to go down.
Anyway, hate speech has never been treated like an assault by the police – charges are usually only laid after a significant investigation, and often in consultation with provincial officials. Giving police the mandate to haul people away based on their singular interpretation of the Criminal Code as it relates to hate speech is, well, misguided.
The only approach that appears to work is to not give those who preach hate a podium from which to preach hate. Mayor Bigger had it right. Just because someone can register to be a candidate, that’s not a reason for any community organization to give them a podium from which to preach hate.
With Popescu, it’s a pretty obvious conclusion that one of the main reasons he seeks public office is to draw attention to the extremists and hateful views that he holds. We would not be paying a single iota of attention to this man but for the prominence that he gains by running in elections.
Popescu is not only a distraction, however. He’s also quite dangerous in that he shows the limits – or more specifically, the lack of limits – that haters face when it comes to gaining a public podium during an election.
I understand that the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce and other local debate organizers believe that they are doing what’s best when they invite all registered candidates to participate in debates – but I think that the Chamber and other community groups like the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury need to rethink their positions on continuing to provide a public podium for those who have a known tendency to abuse our public political discourse during an election in order to advance their own hateful agendas.
I am calling on the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce and all debate organizers to deny David Popescu and anyone else who has engaged in hateful discourse from participating in their public events. I understand that this might be a difficult decision to make for community organizations. It shouldn’t be. It’s 2019. It’s time we got our collective acts together and deplatform the hatred.
(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)