Censorship and the CRTC - Editorial

September 2004

In what must be the most blatant example of censorship Canada has witnessed in recent memory, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommu-nications Commission (CRTC) is refusing to renew the licence of Quebec radio station CHOI-FM because one of its morning hosts has offended "Canadian values." Radio announcer Jeff Fillion has been muzzled and his station shut down for a series of admittedly vulgar comments, including repeated potshots at a rival radio host who was convicted of paying for sex with a minor. In one case, Mr. Fillion said of a psychiatric patient: "Why don't they just pull the plug on him? He doesn't deserve to live. The guy's a freaking burden on society." In another instance, he referred to a weather announcer's "incredible set of boobs" and added that "the size of the brain is not directly proportional to the size of the bra."

While it's clear Mr. Fillion's prattle crossed the bounds of good taste, it is hardly the stuff over which government censors should be getting exercised. The radiowaves are filled with mindless inanities. And inanities are, evidently, what some people want. CHOI-FM's ratings have been increasing of late, which invites the obvious question: Who is better placed to judge "Canadian values" -- bureaucrats in Ottawa, or ordinary Canadians?

In its decision, the commission makes it clear it will not even permit hosts such as Mr. Fillion to make statements of fact if those statements might expose a group to hatred or contempt. Such a ruling sets a frightening precedent. After all, even the daily news often contains matters of fact that might make certain groups the object of derision.

We do not question that the CRTC is within its rights to maintain certain basic standards of decency. But to extend that mandate to include banning remarks that might hurt people's feelings or that might "undermine the multicultural and multi-racial nature of Canadian society" is to mandate a level of social engineering that belongs in a George Orwell book, not in a free and democratic country.

If people are sufficiently offended by Mr. Fillion's comments, they should stop listening to his show and, if they feel strongly enough about the matter, petition the offending station and urge others to boycott it. But to instead turn to the CRTC and urge that agency to act as censor, as Mr. Fillion's critics (including the Mayor of Quebec City) have done, is not only unfair, it's dangerous.

The ruling suggests the proper role of government is to choose which viewpoints and truths are acceptable and polite enough to be tolerated and which viewpoints and truths are too unpleasant to be permitted. This is a level of government omnipotence that no Canadian, not even the weather announcer of his fancy, should be willing to tolerate. For, there is no guarantee that her statements won't be the ones that the CRTC tries to silence next.

As the U.S. writer and economist David Cushman Coyle said: "Democracy needs more free speech, for even the speech of foolish people is valuable if it serves to guarantee the right of the wise to talk." You can judge for yourself whether Mr. Fillion fits the definition of a fool. But the general point applies.