In Canada, Free Speech Has Its Restrictions
Government Limits Discourse That Some May Find
By Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 12, 1999; Page A41
TORONTOŚNew Yorker Harold Mollin thought it was a pretty clever way
to market his new "weather insurance" to Canadians planning weddings or
vacations: a 30-second TV spot featuring a huckster dressed in an Indian
headdress leading a bunch of senior citizens in a rain dance.
But to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), the ad was an affront to
Native Americans and the elderly. The government-owned broadcaster
refused to run it.
"This is political correctness run amok," said an incredulous Mollin, noting
that the seniors in the spot included his 89-year-old father, his aunt and his
best friend's parents.
Or take the case of Stephani the cow. This fall, after a visitor to the
government's experimental farm complained that she didn't like sharing the
same name with the animal, the farm's director declared that, henceforth,
government cows would get only names like Rhubarb and Dynamite.
Whether you call it over-sensitive political correctness or an abiding sense of
fairness and decency, Canada has embraced it like a . . . well, never mind.
Through its human rights laws and hate speech codes, broadcast standards
and myriad "voluntary" industry guidelines, Canada makes no bones about its
determination to impose liberal-minded limits on public discourse.
Although the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms put free speech and a
free press into the bedrock of Canadian law, neither the public nor Canada's
courts views these rights as absolutely as Americans have come to view the
First Amendment. The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled in a series of
cases that the government may limit free speech in the name of other
worthwhile goals, such as ending discrimination, ensuring social harmony or
promoting equality of the sexes.
"In Canada," said Ron Cohen, chairman of the Canadian Broadcast
Standards Council, "we respect free speech but we don't worship it. It is one
thing we value, but not the only thing."
Cohen said that Canada seems to have survived reasonably well without
Don Imus or Rush Limbaugh on any of its radio stations. (Howard Stern is
heard only in Montreal--and then only censored on tape delay.) Last month,
the Global Television network pulled the "Jerry Springer" show from its
lineup after the standards council found that it had violated the restrictions on
sex and violence.
Canada's most powerful tool against politically incorrect speech is its hate
speech code, which prohibits any statement that is "likely to expose a person
or group of persons to hatred or contempt" because of "race, color, ancestry,
place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental
disability, sex, sexual orientation or age." Prosecutors are not required to
show proof of malicious intent or actual harm to win convictions in hate
speech cases, and courts in some jurisdictions have ruled that it does not
matter whether the statements are truthful.
One person who has run afoul of the code is Hugh Owens, a Christian
fundamentalist who took out a small display ad in the Saskatoon newspaper
featuring a stick figure drawing of two men holding hands inside a circle with
a slash through it--a statement of his disapproval of homosexuality.
What made it worse, said the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission,
was that the graphic was accompanied by citations from the Biblical books
of Leviticus, Romans and First Corinthians that, in some translations, call for
sodomy to be punished by death by stoning. If a hearing officer agrees that
this display violates the code, Owens could become the first modern-day
Canadian punished by the government for citing the Bible.
"Our position is that you can't rely simply on the free exchange of ideas to
cleanse the environment of hate and intolerance," said John Hucker,
secretary general of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
For the Canadian press, however, a more serious challenge to free speech is
posed by a case brought by the Human Rights Commission of British
Columbia against Douglas Collins, a former columnist for the North Shore
News in Vancouver.
In 1994, Collins wrote four columns that questioned whether as many as 6
million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and criticized Hollywood for
contributing to the "Holocaust propaganda" with movies such as "Swindler's
List," as he called Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Acting on a
complaint by the Canadian Jewish Congress, a commission tribunal ruled that
the columns had expressed his "hatred and contempt . . . subtly and
indirectly" by "reinforcing negative stereotypes" about Jews.
The tribunal imposed $2,000 fines each on Collins and the newspaper and
ordered the paper to publish a summary of its decision--the first time that
any Canadian government agency or court had dictated editorial content to a
newspaper and ordered that it be published. The case has been appealed to
the British Columbia Supreme Court.
The electronic media operate under even tighter content restrictions. Last
month, in the midst of violent protests in New Brunswick over Indian fishing
rights, CBC reporters on orders from network officials, began referring to
participants as "native fishers" and "non-native fishers."
"Why can't we call them what they call themselves?" complained CBC
producer Dan Leger in an internal e-mail leaked to the National Post.
"Mik'maqs call each other Indians. Fishermen call themselves, well,
fishermen." Leger called the new designations "urban, technocratic, precious,
racist and, above all, imprecise."
Failing to follow such guidelines, however, can have consequences. In
Winnipeg last year, radio talk show host John Collison lost his job after the
Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) complained to station
owners about his repeated and sometimes salty diatribes against Glen
Murray, who eventually became the first openly gay mayor in Canada.
Collison also used his show to stir up opposition to a program proposed by
some school board members to eliminate homophobia in the city's schools.
Collison concedes he was playing the role of "shock jock." In response to
threats from the CRTC, Collison said, the station not only fired him, but also
gave up its all-talk format in favor of easy-listening music.
"This is the way things run in Canada," Collison said. "There is no way of
escaping the mandarins of political correctness."
Andrea Wylie, a member of the CRTC, disagrees. "We are not the thought
police," she said. "We use our power lightly."
Wylie cited figures showing that the commission and its broadcast standards
council took action in only about a dozen of the 14,000 viewer complaints
lodged last year. While acknowledging that the very existence of the codes
might have a chilling effect on public discourse, she called it "a reasonable
chill," reflecting what Canadians are willing to hear.
"We don't have the hang-up you Americans have with free speech," Wylie
Advertisers in Canada also must adhere to a strict set of guidelines adopted
voluntarily by the industry, but no less effective than the government
regulations. Under their dicta, a national restaurant chain was recently
forced to pull a television spot showing a helpless dad trying to prepare
dinner for the kids (he eventually gives up and takes them out for burgers
and fries). A hearing officer ruled that the commercial "reinforced negative
stereotypes" about men that "cannot be excused by an attempt to engage in
There are a few Canadians who worry about these limits, but, as Alan
Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has
discovered, it's a very few. Despite 30 years of crisscrossing the country
warning of the dangers of speech codes and laws, Borovoy's organization
has a mere 6,000 members and a budget of less than $300,000. Typically, he
can take on fewer than 10 cases a year.
Sitting in his cramped office in a rundown office building in downtown
Toronto, Borovoy is philosophical in describing American and Canadian
attitudes toward civil liberties. While Americans are suspicious of
government and rally to the cry of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,"
Canadians, he said, tend to respect authority and set their sights on the more
modest goals of "peace, order and good government."
"In this country, we give the government too much power and trust them not
to abuse it," said Borovoy, noting that, for the most part, voters have not
been disappointed. "I tell people that Canada is a pleasantly authoritarian
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