Thursday, July 15, 2004

CRTC closure of radio station a threat to freedom

VICTORIA - On the surface, the CRTC's decision to shut down a Quebec City radio station because its announcers were offensive jerks just looks nuts.
Look a little deeper, and it still looks nuts.
The CRTC, the federal regulator that decides who gets television and radio licences and on what terms, cancelled the licence of CHOI-FM, the top-rated radio station in Quebec's capital. Without a licence, the station is dead. The people who work there are on the street. Listeners lose a choice in the market.
And freedom of speech takes a big hit from government.
CHOI got in trouble because two announcers on its morning show kept saying offensive things, even after they had warnings from the CRTC.
The show sounds stupid, crude and offensive. The announcers regularly picked on a local TV weather announcer, mocking her appearance and her intelligence and describing here as "a cat in heat."
Commenting on a news story about abuse of a psychiatric patient, the morning man asked "Why don't they just pull the plug on him? He doesn't deserve to live."
And when a Quebec university boasted of its success in attracting foreign students, the morning man ranted that for African students, "the ones who are sent abroad to study are the sons of people who are disgusting. . . the sons of plunderers, cannibals who control certain Third World countries and can afford to send their children to Quebec to go to school."
Pretty appalling stuff, in the worst traditions of mindless shock radio and television.
But no reason for a government agency to decide to shut the station down for being offensive.
We've got laws to prevent people from promoting hatred. If the announcers broke those laws, charge them and let the courts sort it out.
And we've got legal recourse for people whose reputations are damaged by false statements. People who were defamed by the radio hosts should be encouraged to file lawsuits to shut them up and get damages.
But the station isn't losing its licence for breaking any laws. It's being shut down because a government body - after getting about one complaint a month - has decided it's offensive, a dangerously subjective criteria.
I fined the ultraviolent, sexist world of televised wrestling profoundly offensive. I'm appalled by the gross stupidity and cruelty paraded on television by Jerry Springer and the like. Other people may have their own lost of objectionable shows or publications.
But freedom of speech is more important than the personal prejudices of an individual, or a government agency. And protecting it requires a willingness to stand up for the rights of people even when you disagree completely with what they are saying. (The free speech rights of people who are in the mainstream are never challenged; it's the people on the edges who end up needing protection.)
That doesn't mean Canadians are powerless. If a radio station is offensive, they can change the dial. If it is deeply offensive, then they can launch a boycott of advertisers who keep the show on the air. If someone wants to have the station playing in an office, they can insist it be turned off.
But it's dangerous and wrong for the government to decide what kind of speech is allowed.
There's no absolute right to free speech. We accept the need for some essential legal limitations, cautiously imposed by legislators. Shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre and you'll be charged with mischief and liable for the damage that results. Incite hatred and you risk criminal charges. Tell damaging lies and you could face a lawsuit.
But it a huge leap from those necessary constraints to shutting down a radio station, or silencing individuals, not because they've broken any laws but because someone powerful just doesn't like what they are saying.
Footnote: Among those criticizing the decision is Conservative leader Stephen Harper, obviously no fan of this kind of radio. But Harper has argued for Canadians' right to freedom of expression on a range of issues. He's demonstrating that you can't simply support free speech when it suits you.

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