Free speech becomes roadkill in the crackdown on Canadian truckers

Canada appears to be facing its greatest threat since Benedict Arnold came close to seizing Ottawa in 1775. The source of this “insurrection” and “attack on democracy,” however, is not a foreign government but Canadians who have descended on their own capital to protest continuing COVID-19 mandates.

The protest has been peaceful — and highly successful in cutting off key highways. But the most alarming development has not come from the convoy but from the commentary about it, including calls for mass arrests and even vigilantism. The Ottawa Police Services Board chairman has called it a “nationwide insurrection,” adding, “Our city is under siege.”

CNN analyst and Harvard professor Juliette Kayyem was apoplectic at the thought of truckers shutting down roads and interfering with trade. She tweeted out a call to “slash the tires, empty gas tanks, arrest the drivers, and move the trucks.” CNN correspondent Paula Newton said this act of civil disobedience was nothing less than a “threat to democracy. An insurrection, sedition.”

Blocking streets, occupying buildings and shutting down bridges have long been tactics of protesters. Yet what constitutes a protest or an insurrection often seems to depend on the cause involved. When rioters caused billions of dollars in damages, burned police stations and occupied sections of American cities in the summer of 2020, for example, few in the media declared them to be terrorists or a threat to democracy. But CNN’s Kayyem once called conservative protesters occupying a state capital to be “domestic terrorists.” GoFundMe, which previously helped fund arrested Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, froze more than $10 million raised for Canadian truckers to prevent it from being used to support them.

After the money was frozen by GoFundMe, supporters switched to GiveSendGo to “adopt a trucker.” The Canadian government then moved successfully to freeze millions of donations to the truckers, and the Supreme Court of Canada approved the freeze in a major blow to free speech and associational rights in Canada.

In the meantime, the government has demonized the convoy. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who praised truckers just two years ago as heroes, has denounced them as “trying to blockade our economy, our democracy.”

This is the same Trudeau who praised BLM protesters and stressed that “I have attended protests and rallies in the past when I agreed with the goals, when I supported the people expressing their concerns and their issues, Black Lives Matter is an excellent example of that.”

Protesters are routinely arrested for blocking roads, of course, and Canada certainly can enforce its public safety laws. But government responses, in the U.S. and now in Canada, seem heavily dependent on protesters’ viewpoints — just as much of the media coverage of Canada’s trucker movement could not contrast more strikingly with how protests across the U.S. in 2020 were often reported. Back then, many of these same journalists praised the civil disobedience legacy of the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who charged the next generation to go out and make “good trouble.”

In cities such as Washington, D.C., police allowed BLM protesters to take over streets and stood by as some protesters toppled historic statues. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked about the destruction, she shrugged and said, “People will do what they will do.” In Seattle, the seizing of a police station and the occupation of an entire section of the city was tolerated by the Democratic mayor, who likened it to a “summer of love.” And when BLM protesters flouted COVID-19 mandates, health experts lined up to declare they should be exempted from pandemic rules because racism is a health crisis too.

What is most concerning now is the unwillingness to consider Canadian truckers as anything other than knuckle-dragging, racist insurrectionists. Like so much in our age of rage, our political opponents cannot be anything but caricatures or cutouts, because reason no longer has a place in our national discourse. Yet it is precisely the isolation of dissenting voices and groups that leads to such acts of disruption and disobedience.

Canada’s truckers obviously feel marginalized and dismissed by their government. That feeling was magnified when Trudeau fled to a secure location and refused to meet with them. Officials then threatened anyone giving aid or gas to the truckers.

There is a worldwide movement against COVID-19 mandates and rising complaints over the censorship of those with opposing views of these policies. Many of those objections are now being treated as mainstream questions, from the efficacy of masks to the value of lockdowns, from the origins of the virus to the protection of natural antibodies.

Once again, an alliance of government, social media companies and the mainstream media is fueling public divisions, even as such condemnation of the truckers appears to be having less and less impact. Rage gives a license to treat opposing views as unworthy of expression or tolerance. But people who feel marginalized tend to get mad and find their own outlets for speech.

I believe the truckers are wrong to continue the blockade unless the government yields to their demands. But the government also is wrong in how it has dismissed the truckers and cracked down on fundraising and other support for the movement.

The freezing of funds supporting the truckers laid bare the anti-free speech trend sweeping across the world, including in the U.S. There is no principled basis for cutting off the ability of citizens to support other citizens in a campaign of civil disobedience. Although ignored by most in the media, the same claim used by the Trudeau government today could have been used to freeze support for the civil rights era’s freedom marchers or for BLM protesters in 2020.

Ottawa is not under siege; the roads can be cleared. However, our politics and media have become bunkered and blockaded. Free speech is being curtailed through government actions, including the freezing of these funds, or through corporate censorship now embraced by the left. And lost in all this is an outlet for our political tensions and channels for dialogue.

Acts of civil disobedience like these will remain part of political movements. However, if we want to reduce the impulse to take to the highways to protest, then we need to open up the information superhighway for full political expression and dissent.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags Black Lives Matter Canada Canada trucker protests Canadian trucker convoy Civil disobedience free speech John Lewis Justin Trudeau liberal hypocrisy Nancy Pelosi Ottawa Social media Social movements

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