I spent this weekend in Montréal, where the provincial government mandates—with some exceptions—that all signage be primarily in French. English or other translations are allowed, but must be in a smaller font than the French text.
On the face of it, the law seems to dramatically limit how people and businesses can publicly express themselves. I imagine that many in the United States would consider the rule an unacceptable violation of free speech rights.
But there are pitfalls to evaluating cultural and language policy solely on whether citizens are free from restriction.
I think back to my time in Cuba, where the government has wide-ranging control over most forms of mass media. When asked why, I heard one former government official answer: “If we didn’t, then the largest newspaper in the country would be the one that is funded by the United States.” Similarly, Québec’s rules are meant to protect the province’s French culture and identity in an overwhelmingly anglophone country.
The lesson is that speech reflects not just freedom but also power. In the same way that an unregulated market is advantageous to those with the most economic power (who are the ones always pushing for less regulation?), a totally unregulated cultural scene benefits the most culturally powerful.
That’s not to say that Québec’s way is necessarily the best way, but we should be careful about dismissing the policy simply because it attempts to regulate expression.
Photo: Montréal metro.