Freedom of Speech Debate, Hart House Debating Club, University of Toronto, 2006-11-15

Overview

It seems there was a debate by Hart House Debating Club at the University of Toronto on 2006-11-15, featuring four student debaters and Christopher Hitchens.  There doesn’t seem to be any official resource on the Web about this event, so I thought I’d create this post to act as a possible single point of reference.  Please feel free to comment below with any suggested additions / corrections / etc..

Main Sources of Info

The best written explanation of the event seems to be this report published 5 days later in The Varsity (“The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880”).

(For the record, the “Archives” drop-down menu here only goes back as far as July 2012.  And neither this page nor this website seem to have any archive information at all.)

Presumably, the main reason the event still interests people today (nearly 10 years later) is that a video recording was made, and broadcast by TVO, and has ended up being made available in various places online.  This TVO feed currently links to this MP4 file (duration 41:47), which seems to be the ‘main’ video of the debate, showing the speeches by the Speaker of the House, the four student debaters, and Christopher Hitchens.

And it seems that the actual TVO broadcast was an episode called “Christopher Hitchens” (duration 51:11) of a series called Big Ideas.  A transcript is available.  You can see that the extra 10 minutes of footage comes from the TVO presenter Andrew Moodie in a studio, giving an introduction, a cutaway just as Hitchens starts speaking, and his own opinion at the end – before finishing the episode with a discussion of an unrelated topic (the Ontario “2007 Best Lecturer Competition”).

Debate Details

From the transcript: “The resolution before the house today is: be it resolved that freedom of speech includes the freedom to hate“.  This resolution seems to be a reaction to a Canadian law that criminalizes ‘promoting hatred’, which is mentioned by James Renihan at the start of his speech.

Speakers:

  • “Ethan Hoddes as Speaker of the House”
  • “James Renihan as Prime Minister”
  • “Adrienne Lipsey as Member of the Opposition”
  • “Christina Veira as Minister of the Crown”
  • “Rory McKeown as Leader of the Opposition”
  • “Christopher Hitchens as himself”

As you can see, there seems to be some kind of debating society role-playing, similar to this.

Presumably after Hitchens spoke there was a vote.  “The resolution calling for the decriminalization of hate speech was upheld by 205 to 87 votes.”

Hitchens Partially Wrong About Justice Holmes

It seems that Hitchens was partially wrong in what he said at the start of his speech, about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or define it as an action, gave that of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

It is very often forgotten that what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read, opposing President Wilson’s participation in the First World War, and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict, which the Yiddish-speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape.

In fact it could be just as plausible argued that the Yiddish-speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire fighters, were the ones who were shouting fire when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre, indeed.

(The above text is not from the TVO transcript, but from a transcript just of Hitchens’s speech, provided by the Skeptical Libertarian, which includes useful hyperlinks, and three minor corrections in square brackets.)

The “fire in a theatre” meme was indeed from a (1919) opinion by Holmes in which SCOTUS was upholding the criminal conviction of some socialists who opposed the First World War.  But the Yiddish-speaking Russians seem to have been defendants in a separate case, heard by SCOTUS later that year.  They were apparently anarchists supporting the Russian Revolution, and their conviction was actually opposed by Holmes.

Of course, correcting Hitchens’s mistakes doesn’t affect his argument.  Doing so just makes it briefer, as follows:

Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or define it as an action, gave that of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

It is very often forgotten that what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read, opposing President Wilson’s participation in the First World War, and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict, which the Yiddish-speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape.

In fact it could be just as plausible argued that the Yiddish-speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire fighters, were the ones who were shouting fire when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre, indeed.

N.B.  I am not an expert.  This is my own simplistic research, mostly using Wikipedia, instigated by a You Tube comment I saw pointing out the mistake.  It is fashionable to be snobbish about Wikipedia but I shall remind you of their Verifiability policy, which means there should be reliable sources for all claims, and “any material lacking a reliable source directly supporting it may be removed” (by anyone, even you).  So in theory there should be reliable sources for everything I have claimed above (because I’m just repeating claims made on Wikipedia).  But as I said before, if you think I need to update this blog post, feel free to comment below.

More on Holmes

The “fire in a theatre” case is called “Schenck v. United States”.  Here are a couple of archive links:

  • originally at firstamendmentcenter.org
    • UPDATE 2017-02-01: This is now giving an error.
      • (“Page cannot be displayed due to robots.txt.”  But I’ll leave the link here in the hope that this will one day be rectified; I think there’s a good chance that firstamendmentcenter.org didn’t really want to prevent archive.org from making those resources available.)
  • originally at 1stam.umn.edu

Holmes also wrote the opinion in “Debs v. United States“, a similar outcome to Schenck.

For more thoughts about Holmes’s record on freedom of speech, here are two articles (both somewhat critical):

Books that discuss Holmes’s record on freedom of speech include:

 

Other Resources

Hitchens’s speech viewable on You Tube:

N.B.  In case anyone was wondering, the “2006-11-15” in the title of this blog post is in the ISO date format.

 

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