Palestine solidarity activists at York. Source: Fightback

For the right-wing, there are few talking points more beloved (or worse abused) than that of “free speech.” From the relatively mainstream pages of the National Post to the weepy ramblings of Jordan Peterson’s increasingly unhinged YouTube manifestos, free speech is presented as being under attack from the “woke” left. While free speech is indeed under attack—along with a number of other democratic rights to boot—it’s not the ‘woke left’ that’s to blame.

In the weeks following the outbreak of war in Gaza, the hypocrisy of the right-wing approach to free speech has been on full display. Not content to merely defend the atrocities and war crimes of the Israeli state, over the past few weeks the capitalist establishment has started to attack the right to show even the most basic solidarity with the Palestinian people. By calling for the police to arrest protestors who chant pro-Palestinian slogans, threatening to defund student unions that issue statements in solidarity with Palestine, and labelling union leaders who support Palestinian resistance as anti-semitic or pro-terror, the capitalist class and their mouthpieces are attacking the basic democratic right to free speech. We must fight back against this—to be passive would only invite more aggression.

The right wing attacks…

In a National Post opinion column that seethes with contempt for the youth in general, Jamie Sarkonak took aim at student unions that put out statements of solidarity with Palestine, and the York student unions in particular:

“The YFS, supported by student money … commits itself to fighting for equity — and not equality. It could still do these things without levying a student fee, but it would be considerably kneecapped in doing so. That’s why the answer to student radicalization probably involves turning off the taps, because student unions are propped up by mandatory student fees. In 2019, Ontario Premier Doug Ford almost had the right idea — he put forth a policy called the “Student Choice Initiative”, which was supposed to make such mandatory fees optional. It posed a serious threat to student unions, who use their reliable tax to fund long-term investments and capital projects — and power radical social policy initiatives that include going after Israel.”

Right-wing rags like the National Post have made a whole industry out of lamenting the attack on free speech that is supposedly happening on campus, and delight in telling ghost stories of left-wing professors ruthlessly victimizing innocent conservatives, who simply want to defend their views in the “marketplace of ideas.” But when young people organize to fight oppression, then that’s a bridge too far.

The York administration has responded by lining up behind imperialist interests, and have been throwing every potential rule and by-law at the Palestinian Solidarity Collective (PSC) to pressure them into canceling events in solidarity with Palestine, and have been demanding to go through all published material beforehand, in order to decide what was acceptable to them, and what was not. At time of writing, the university has threatened to dissolve all student unions unless they withdraw their support for Palestine. Commendably, the student unions are standing their ground.

So far the right wing has only used administrative and bureaucratic measures against those who come out in solidarity with Palestine, but they’ve been open about wanting to go further. Speaking in reference to the Oct. 9 rally in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square in support of Palestine, MP and Conservative party deputy leader Melissa Lantsman had this to say: “It’s not a Pro-Palestinian counter-protest, it’s a protest in support of a listed terrorist organisation … and it has no place in Canada … I want to see the police enforce punishment on this. This is not allowed in Canada, and that should be loud and clear. It is not pro-Palestinian, it is pro-Hamas, pro-terrorist.”

Anyone who was present at the Oct. 9 protests could tell you that it was a rally in solidarity with Palestine, not Hamas. Pretending like the two are identical is the same genocidal logic that the Israeli state uses to justify the horrific and indiscriminate bombings that are ongoing in Gaza at the time of writing.

Contrary to Lantsman’s claims, showing solidarity with Palestine is indeed allowed in Canada. There are currently no laws on the books that would give the police clear legal justification to disperse these demonstrations with batons and tear gas – as Lantsman clearly desires. However, when it comes to crushing protests, and suppressing the right of organizers and demonstrators to free expression, the state has hardly needed clear legal justification in the past. Recent episodes in Canadian history like the G20 protests in 2010, or the Quebec student strike in 2012, show that if the state feels like its interests are threatened by a movement, it is more than willing to take a “brutally suppress now, find legal cover later” approach to the problem.

Lantsman isn’t alone in calling for the police to be used against peaceful protests in solidarity with Palestine. A recent headline in the Globe and Mail poses the loaded question: “Rallies raise question of whether Canada should have a law against the public cheering of terrorism,’ and in the National Post: “As a spooked Europe cracks down on pro-Hamas rallies, Canada … doesn’t.”

It’s examples like these that reveal the truth of the matter. For the right-wing, the right to free speech has only ever been a completely cynical appeal for them to be able to put forward whatever hateful ideas they want, wherever they want, without any criticism or opposition from the left. The moment it’s inconvenient for them, they’re happy to throw free speech out the window and persecute those who speak truths that go against their interests.

Threats to mobilise the police to forcefully suppress the pro-Palestinian solidarity movement don’t come without risks for the capitalist state, however. In the short term, they may succeed in shutting down a couple rallies, but even the mere threat of using the police to crush the freedom of demonstrators is highly corrosive to the myth that the state, and its courts, laws, and police are neutral.

Every day, more Canadian workers and youth come to realize that the Canadian state is a capitalist state that serves the interests of private property, and is built root and branch for that purpose. For all the praises of “free speech” sung by both the Liberals and Conservatives, they are perfectly willing to direct the ‘neutral’ courts and police to crush that free speech if it becomes an inconvenience—and if they think they can get away with it.

… And ‘the left’ caves

However, the response of most of the so-called “left” has meant that the state hasn’t had to go that far, since they’ve crumbled in the face of the slightest pressure. The recent case of Ontario NDP MPP Sarah Jama, and the motion to censure her in the Legislative Assembly is a prime example of this.

Jama issued a public statement on her “X” (formerly Twitter) account that called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and an end to occupation and Apartheid in Palestine. The response from the Conservative government in Queen’s Park was to censure her, preventing Jama from speaking in the legislature, effectively gagging her from participating in democratic debate.

In the face of this brazen attack on Jama’s right to free speech, the NDP has folded hard, and fast. The Leader of the Ontario NDP, Marit Stiles, immediately caved to Doug Ford’s demands, and asked Jama to retract the social media statement and apologize. When Jama went off the script that party bureaucrats had crafted for her to read in Ontario’s provincial parliament, and hit back against her undemocratic censorship, she was kicked out of the NDP caucus.

While disappointing, it’s hard to be surprised at this outcome. These soft reformist ‘lefts’ are more interested in being the respectable left-wing of the Liberals than fighting for the working class. Similar examples can be found in the reformist labour leadership. Fred Hahn, the president of CUPE Ontario, initially came out with a statement in solidarity with Palestine, and defended the right of an oppressed people to resist occupation and ethnic cleansing. After facing intense criticism in the media—including slanderous accusations of antisemitism—Hahn bowed to the pressure and apologized for his statement. The sad cases of Hahn and the ONDP show that if pushed, reformists are prepared to sell out any principled stand for solidarity (and apparently, they don’t even need to be pushed too hard).

Olivia Chow’s response to the rally in Nathan Phillips Square (as referenced earlier) is also a telling example of the weakness of the reformists when it comes to defending even the most basic democratic right to free speech—and in this case, assembly. The ostensibly left-wing mayor of Toronto jumped into the right-wing media hysteria directed against pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and put out a statement that claimed: “The rally to support Hamas at Nathan Phillips Square today is unsanctioned, without a permit and I unequivocally denounce it.”

Aside from the completely scandalous threat that is implicit in this statement—namely to use the police and the law to shut down the demonstration—it is also entirely baseless. There is no such thing as a “permit for rallies” in Toronto, as the municipal government’s website makes clear.

It appears that, in an undignified haste to distance herself from anything resembling solidarity with Palestine, Chow launched herself even beyond the normal groveling that we’ve come to expect from the soft reformist “left,” and joined the ignominious chorus of right-wing columnists and Conservative party hacks baying for Palestinian solidarity to be suppressed at baton-point.

Chow has since retracted the statement, and Jama has apologized “for any pain she may have caused”—but the damage is done, and the lesson is clear. When it comes to defending our basic democratic rights to free speech, the Canadian state, and the left-wing reformists cannot be trusted.

How do we defend our right to say ‘Free Palestine’?

The freedom of speech, along with other democratic rights, was initially won by the capitalist class in their struggle against the old feudal order of Europe. Today, in the period of capitalism’s decline and rot, even the most basic democratic rights that were used to justify the rule of capital over society are being casually disregarded by the capitalist class.

To defend our democratic rights, we must rely on our own strengths and organizations – the labour movement, and the energy of the youth. The capitalists and their bought-and-paid-for politicians know this, which is why any real resistance from the labour and student movement has also been the subject of incredible slanders and attacks. Ultimately, if we want to enjoy our democratic freedoms without having to constantly defend them against attempts by the capitalist class to wrench them back, we must organize as a class, and prepare to overthrow the whole rotten system.

However, there’s a real limit on what you can do as an individual. The students and workers have their unions, and likewise revolutionary students and workers must come together to organize themselves, and build a force that can overthrow capitalism in Canada, and contribute to a world revolutionary movement.

If you want to fight for a communist future—and in so doing fight for the liberation of Palestine as well—we urge you to get organized with the IMT!