Peter Menzies: CRTC Sanctioning of Network Proves Skeptics Right to Fear Govt. Regulation of Internet

Peter Menzies: CRTC Sanctioning of Network Proves Skeptics Right to Fear Govt. Regulation of Internet
The social media page of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on a cellphone in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Peter Menzies

The authors of Canada’s plans to regulate the internet have insisted for almost two years that freedom of expression is not at risk.

On June 29, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), proved them wrong.

In a stunning decision that prompted a pair of brave dissents, the CRTC sanctioned Société Radio-Canada (SRC) for using a word from a book title during a broadcast almost two years ago. The decision was neither accompanied by a news release nor was it posted on social media.
“The Commission finds that the content broadcast during a segment of the SRC program Le 15-18 goes against the Canadian broadcasting policy objectives and values . . . of the Broadcasting Act,” the decision states.

“Specifically, the Commission considers that the use and repetition of the ‘N-word’ on this program was inconsistent with these objectives of the Act and that the SRC did not implement all the necessary measures to mitigate the impact of the ‘N-word’ on its audience, particularly in the current social context and given its national public broadcaster status.”

Vice-chair Carolyn Simard and regional Commissioner Joanne Levy dissented. Heavily.

“The majority approach could lead to the censorship of expression regarding current events, books, songs, films and TV titles,” Levy wrote. “The risk-averse in today’s newsrooms will avoid difficult discussions and self-censor.

Levy then referenced remarks from Le 15-18 commentator Simon Jodoin who said that “when we erase words, we erase ideas too.”

“As society evolves, how will this response suppress expression?” she added.

“What other words and ideas will be seen as problematic? Simply because a word or idea is offensive, does that render the discussion of the word or idea to be of a quality inconsistent with the high standard for programming mandated by the Broadcasting Act?”

The original complaint stemmed from a controversy at Concordia University where a petition was circulated demanding that a professor be sanctioned for using the full title of the 1968 book, “Negres blancs d’Amerique,” which speaks to discrimination against francophones.

Jodoin was asked to speak about the issue on the program, and the “N-word” was spoken four times when referencing the book’s title.

A complaint was made by a listener who then disagreed with the conclusions of SRC’s staff and ombudsperson, and elevated it to the CRTC. The majority of the commissioners decided this speech violated the Broadcasting Act.

It is that Act that is being expanded by the Trudeau government’s Bill C-11 so that the CRTC’s authority will extend beyond radio and television to include the internet.

The CRTC received the complaint in November 2020, shortly after the original legislation was tabled in the House of Commons. The release of the decision comes 20 months later, and a week after Bill C-11 was passed by the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called critics of the bill tinfoil-hatters, and other backers of Bill C-11 have insisted concerns the legislation constitutes a threat to freedom of speech are unfounded.

The CRTC’s decision to sanction SRC makes it crystal clear those concerns are real.

“The majority decision is not balanced and fails the tests for transparency, fairness and predictability,” Levy wrote. “If the Commission wishes to use current social context to override freedom of expression, it should consider a public consultation process.

“The majority decision ignores freedom of the press, and in my view, will stifle it. Instead of bold, current, relevant journalism we risk having analysis of the news and issues of the day become punchlines for stand-up comedians, whose freedom of expression would appear to be better protected.”

There’s no question the “N-word” is offensive. I appreciate why many people think it should never be spoken at all. I understand that others recognize that its use is part of our literary history and will at times have to be referenced and that it articulates differently in French. And I’ve watched Dave Chapelle and listened to gangsta rap where it’s used all the time.

So, as much as many people rightly think its use should be discouraged, an arm of government has absolutely no business dictating what legal words people may or may not use on the internet.

And that’s exactly what Bill C-11 is giving the CRTC the power to do.

As Simard wrote in her dissent: “the majority decision has the unintended effect of allowing the regulator to breach the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasters.”

The CRTC is now punishing SRC, who must apologize in writing for speaking the book title on the air (three times in French, once in English). Within a month the broadcaster has to explain how it intends to mitigate the “impact” of its bad behaviour, which sounds a lot like a self-criticism session. And it must publicly report to the commission by Sept. 27 on what actions it will take to make sure this never happens again.

All that’s missing are the dunce’s hats and signs hung around the necks of SRC executives.

By the final deadline, the term of the CRTC’s current chair, Ian Scott, will have expired. But the rest of the majority—the ones that favour controlling how people may speak—will still be in place.

Simard left last month for a role at Elections Canada. That leaves Levy as the only commissioner prepared to defend freedom of expression once the internet comes under the CRTC’s control later this year.

Her term expires next July.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an award winning journalist, and former vice-chair of the CRTC.
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