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What Does Freedom Of Expression Look Like?

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Early one morning this week, I opened my front door to find a full colour flyer tucked into my screen. It wasn't pretty. The top of the card read "An unplanned pregnancy can seem very scary." Under that were two photos: On the left was a picture purporting to be a "7-Week Pre-Natal Picture," at significant magnification; the photo on the right was of a "First-Trimester (8-week) Aborted Embryo," also magnified and somewhat dessicated.

I took a quick look at both sides of the card and headed for my recycling bin. No thanks, I thought. And that was the end of that. Or was it?

The next day, I was listening to CBC radio Metro Morning when I learned that a woman in the community had taken it upon herself to remove these flyers from people's mailboxes. She wants to protect her neighbours from the disturbing images. She maintains that she is keeping them for anyone who might want to see them.

On the same program another woman described how her five-year-old daughter had found the flyer in the family's mailbox and was very frightened. This woman referred to the images as obscene. Both women are registering complaints with their MP, City Councillor and Advertising Standards Canada.

Interestingly, both of these women told the interviewer that they are journalists and strong supporters of freedom of expression. If supporters act like that, what do freedom of expression detractors do?

Can we nurture, protect and educate children, all at the same time?

I do not deny that the flyers can be upsetting and that, given a choice, most adults would prefer that their children not see them. Most would also prefer to avoid the very difficult conversations that such materials can initiate. But in the real world, adults do not always get to choose what their children see and experience. We cannot always protect them from things that scare or disturb them. So what should we do?

Are we not able to have age appropriate discussions with our children about the real world? If your child is frightened when she meets a homeless or a disabled person on her street corner, should we make sure these people are not free to be on our streets? Not if we believe in rights for all people. We need to engage with our children about things that disturb them -- and also about our rights.

Being an adult, a parent, grandparent, caregiver, teacher or other adult who interacts with children is very hard work. If we are doing our job, we must tread in dangerous waters. How can we do this in a diverse and multi-layered society? Can we nurture, protect and educate children, all at the same time?

We can ask the children what they want to know and then respond to them at the places where they are. This is REAL civics education and it happens on a daily basis.

If a five-year-old has seen a troubling image we need to talk with her. We can ask her, Why does this frighten you? What do the pictures look like to you? What should we do with this flyer?

It may not be necessary to discuss abortion with a five-year-old. She may only need to be reassured that while every animal and person goes through a stage of development that looks a little scary, babies at birth look like babies. Does she need to know that not all embryos become babies? Perhaps. But maybe not. She needs to be asked what she would like to know.

Living in a democracy, we understand that freedom of speech is at the heart of all of our freedoms. If we cannot say or express our ideas, words and images, how will unpopular people be protected from the indignities of oppression? I may not want to hear your voice, see your flyers, see your artwork, but you have the right to offer them to me. And I have the right to file them in my recycling box. I have no use for a neighbor deciding what I may or may not receive in my mailbox.

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