The man they couldn’t cancel

Rush Limbaugh

“Have you ever actually listened to him?”

A university friend asked me that after I said in my youthful naïveté that Rush was a little “out there.”

No, I had to concede. I protested, but I had read quotes of his!

“Just listen,” he said. So I did.

My first time tuning into The Rush Limbaugh Show was in a minivan full of young Michigan Republicans I had befriended, on a road trip to the 2008 Republican National Convention.

I was in awe. Not just of Limbaugh’s talednt as a broadcaster, but at the vast difference between Limbaugh and the media’s characterization of him, which I and so many others had allowed to define him.

Limbaugh died this morning at 70, after a battle with lung cancer.

When I first listened to Limbaugh on the air, I had no idea I would end up as a talk radio host myself some years later (unfortunately programmed at the same time as Limbaugh’s long-running show).

My late friend Kathy Shaidle let me use her Rush 24/7 account so I could tune into Rush on the infamous “Dittocam.” I learned about conservatism, American politics, history, and the importance of a consistent outlook on the world, from America’s Anchorman.

I was a proud student of the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies, a reference that won’t be lost on fellow listeners.

Radio is the most intimate medium. The relationship between a radio broadcaster and listener is unlike any other in media. Limbaugh knew this, and never took the audience for granted. His fans didn’t just listen to the show, but partook in it.

My experience is not all that unique. It’s hard to find a conservative, least of all one in talk radio, who was not influenced by Limbaugh. All political talk radio hosts, even those not directly inspired by him, get to do what they do because Limbaugh built a medium for them.

When I started podcasting in 2010, it was difficult to not want to emulate Rush. So many broadcasters did – and failed. There was only one Rush, and only ever will be. But still, I listened. In fact, I studied.

Then came February 29, 2012.

Just under nine years ago, Limbaugh joked that Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was a “slut” and a “prostitute” after Fluke testified that her Catholic university should cover her birth control under the student health plan.

In the span of a couple of days, dozens (some estimates say over 100) of sponsors dropped Limbaugh. In the eyes of the mainstream media, he was “done.”

At the time, I didn’t realize this had happened before. A few times. Limbaugh had triggered a few moral panics over the years. This was the first while I’d been listening to him. I, too, believed he was done.

My friend who had first introduced me to The Rush Limbaugh Show scoffed. I can’t recall whether he told me to have faith, but he as might as well have.

Rush survived. He outlasted Sandra Fluke, who was to be the woman that took him down, but is instead a footnote in Limbaugh’s 33-year reign.

I never spoke to Limbaugh, though on one occasion he cited a story I had written on his show. I nonetheless made my infinitesimally small contribution to the show by sending the odd story ideas to Mark Steyn, Limbaugh’s self-styled undocumented guest host, when he’s been behind the microphone in Limbaugh’s absence, something that happened with increasing frequency over the past year.

As Steyn has said on numerous occasions, Rush has been on the top for a third of the entire history of the medium of radio.

He’s survived the digital revolution, and every attempt to cancel him along the way – even picking up a Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, just hours after he announced to his audience of millions his cancer diagnosis.

Prayers – and dittos – to Rush, Kathryn, Snerdley, and the whole Limbaugh family.

The fight for free speech is never over

It was a big victory against state censorship when section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed in 2013.

The repeal, accomplished through a private member’s bill by Conservative member of parliament Brian Storseth, eliminated the CHRA provision allowing for prosecution of online “hate” speech.

Yet not even a decade has passed and a parliamentary committee is weighing whether to bring back section 13 or an amended version of it.

The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has heard from nearly five dozen witnesses since April as part of its study of “online hate.”

“The Canadian Human Rights Act does not include any mention of telecommunications and the internet since section 13 of the Act was repealed in 2013,” the scope of the body’s study says. “The Committee is particularly interested in how potential amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Criminal Code, or any other Act, could help stem the propagation of hateful acts and the enticement of hate such as racism, sexism, antisemitism, islamophobia, or homophobia, through online platforms.”

Shamefully, yet unsurprisingly, most of the witnesses testifying–including the chief commissioners of the Saskatchewan and Canadian human rights commissions–have advocated a restoration of section 13.

While the Liberal government may wish to pretend there’s a gap in the law regarding the internet, there isn’t. Anything that’s illegal in Canada–as criminal hate speech is–is prohibited on the internet.

I suspect what censors are actually pining for is the murky and reprehensibly broad interpretation “hate” that the Canadian Human Rights Commission embraced during the lifespan of section 13.

This week the committee will hear from Mark Steyn, Lindsay Shepherd and John Robson. Their voices will be important after weeks of dozens of witnesses wanting government to not only clamp down on online hate speech, but also social media companies that allow it.

(Only a couple of witnesses to date have made preserving free speech a priority in their recommendations.)

There’s nothing wrong with opposing offensive and hateful speech. Wanting government to do so with the force of the law is a different story. Especially when the umpteen hours spent investigating “online hate” have not yielded a definition of it.

Even so, that Canadian Human Rights Commission’s chief commissioner testified that it poses a “clear and present danger.”

The missing definition is critical here, especially if the Left gets its way and social media postings do become subject to government regulation, as a supercharged section 13 would allow.

Given how readily the Left accuses anyone it disagrees with of “hateful” rhetoric with labels like “racist” and “Islamophobe” and the like, I’m not optimistic a Liberal definition of hate speech will hew to Canadian criminal law’s high threshold.

That this committee’s study exists in the first place is evidence of victory’s impermanence. I joined the chorus of celebration when section 13 was repealed in 2013.

The climate of free speech has changed a lot in these last six years, however. Conservative commentators had allies in liberal journalists on the question of censorship and free speech back then. Columnists and even some politicians on the Left understood that a liberal democracy must uphold free speech.

Now, defending free speech is somehow synonymous with defending bigotry to the Left, which is more focused on pinpointing where free speech’s limits are than with preserving the overall right.

Groups like PEN, Amnesty and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression care far more about identity politics than upholding freedom of expression.

Amnesty Canada, for example, testified in support of online hate speech regulation, arguing the “right to free expression” carries “special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to restrictions.”

Government bureaucracies don’t even pretend to care about freedom of speech. Case in point was Saskatchewan human rights commissioner David Arnot’s testimony before the justice committee last week.

Arnot said human rights commissions are the best way to curb hate, rather than criminal law, saying criticism of human rights commissions justifying censorship was merely “anecdotal.”

Except it wasn’t.

Steyn had to defend his right to publish a column about Islam before British Columbia’s human rights tribunal. The complaint against Maclean’s that sparked that trial was also put to the human rights bodies of Canada and Ontario, which declined to pursue only for lack of jurisdiction, not lack of support.

But Arnot, who I suspect is representative of the broader government-appointed human rights industry in Canada, rejects the premise that free speech is even a right in Canada, let alone one to be protected.

“Canada has no democratic tradition of unbridled free speech,” he said. “Freedom of speech in Canada has always been freedom governed by limits recognized in law.”

He argued there are “numerous limits to free expression that are justifiable in a free and democratic society.”

This is true when talking about threats, advocacy of genocide, and so on. Though Arnot said any protection against the “greater harm that flows from unfettered speech” is justified.

Anyone thinking the Conservatives will be reliable allies in this fight need only look at Andrew Scheer’s treatment of one of his own party’s members of parliament, Michael Cooper.

Until last weekend, Cooper was the vice-chair of the justice committee. Now he’s been booted by Scheer for the crime of being “insensitive” after pushing back against a witness’ erroneous claim that “conservative commentators” influence anti-Muslim attackers.

Cooper read from the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto to illustrate how the murderer actually disavowed conservatism. After the media falsely crafted a narrative of a Conservative MP beating up on a Muslim, Scheer capitulated, throwing his own caucus member under the bus for his “insensitive and unacceptable” comments, “especially when directed at a Muslim witness.”

This is one of the reasons I’m less optimistic about this renewed fight for free speech. A decade ago, Conservatives and even some Liberals were unified in their support for free speech. Now, Liberals and some Conservatives are united in the other direction.

Victory should never be taken for granted. The fight is the same as it was a decade ago, though the opposition is much larger.

Free Speech at Sea: Andrew Lawton on the Mark Steyn Show

Mark Steyn and I have completed our Freaky Friday role reversal. Just a few weeks after he and I sat down for a full-length interview for True North Initiative, it was my turn in the hot seat, joining singer-songwriter Tal Bachman and author Kathy Shaidle on a free speech edition of the Mark Steyn Show, filmed in front of a live audience aboard the maiden Mark Steyn Cruise.

From Tal’s background as a successful musician, Kathy’s as a published poet, and my own navigation of the world of media and politics in Canada, there was a general understanding that the threats to free speech are coming about from within the cultural sphere and not just from statist forces.

It was a great pleasure to be on the panel, so I hope you’ll enjoy watching.

Mark Steyn on diversity, citizenship and western values

As I write this, I’m cruising the Atlantic with legendary author and broadcaster Mark Steyn as part of the first Mark Steyn Cruise, which I’m both producing and speaking on.

It’s a fitting time to release a full-length interview I did with Mark for the True North Initiative at his New England headquarters.

We spoke about immigration, free speech and diversity. While global issues, they’re of particular concern in Canada, where the ruling government has prioritized diversity above any other aspect of Canadian identity and culture. Justin Trudeau won’t even recognize the existence of any such identity and culture.

It was a true delight, and I can only hope western lawmakers pay attention. Either way, enjoy!

These things are made possible by the generous support of True North Initiative patrons, so please consider becoming one if you aren’t already.