From My Perspective – Freedom of Speech

Last week I did not submit an article for my “From My Perspective” column in The Voice. After more than two years of writing regularly and rarely missing an issue, I found myself unable to write. Partly it was due to stress and overload and just needing a break. But the more important reason I chose not to write was because I was wrestling with the notion of freedom of speech and the consequences that can occur when someone takes offense to something you’ve written. I found myself wondering whether it was worth it. I’ve always advocated for freedom of speech, believing that a writer cannot be afraid to state an opinion due to fear that their words may have negative personal consequences. On the other hand, if these negative personal consequences could have long term effects on one’s reputation and status in the community – is it really worth it?

Journalists can face even more serious repercussions. A short while ago, journalistic freedom in Canada came under attack when the RCMP raided Ottawa Citizen journalist Juliet O’Neill’s home and office. They arrived at her home at 8 AM January 21 with a search warrant, seeking to locate the identity of the person who had leaked confidential documents about the Maher Arar case to her. They blocked off her home with crime scene tape, then for five hours, ten RCMP officers searched her home. They dismantled shelves and rummaged through underwear drawers, seizing paperwork and computer files, in what O’Neill herself called “a slow-motion robbery” (O’Neill, January 24). Government representatives insist that they respect freedom of the press but needed to balance the “nation’s right to uncover journalistic sources in the name of national security” with the confidentiality right of individual journalists (Ottawa Citizen, January 23/04). Charges were pending against O’Neill under the Security of Information Act, with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, but these charges have apparently been dropped.

O’Neill’s case is not that unusual, unfortunately. But even if there are no serious consequences, a writers open themselves up to criticism, and need to be prepared to have a very thick skin. I often read letters to the editor in the Edmonton Journal where readers are less than complimentary (if not downright rude) if they disagree with something a writer has said. Our Voice editor can likely attest to how difficult it can be at times to please all readers, and I know she too has sometimes faced criticism for a particular choice of words or for stating an unpopular opinion. Words can be easily misunderstood, and a writer may inadvertently offend readers. A particular word choice can completely change the intent of an article or commentary, and sometimes attempting to explain oneself after the fact just makes matters worse. Sometimes readers bent on criticism do not differentiate between the person and the words – so a writer who is attempting to provide an alternate side to a story, or who is trying to generate debate, may be ridiculed or negatively judged for holding an unpopular opinion – when this is not necessarily their personal view.

I believe an important role of the media is to inform, get people thinking about issues, and to generate debate by presenting different sides to a story. I think controversy is an important part of responsible reporting in the media. Reporting that only presents one side of the issue is not responsible journalism and I think it assumes that readers do not possess sufficient intelligence to decide matters for themselves. Unfortunately media bias is a powerful tool that can be used to mislead the masses.

I subscribe to the Edmonton Journal, and I often find CanWest Global newspapers to be quite one-sided and biased in their reporting. Although I personally consider the Edmonton Journal to be politically biased, I find it very interesting to read about the many fights the newspaper has engaged in over the years in the interest of freedom of speech. According to a 100th Anniversary Issue on November 11, 2003, the Edmonton Journal fights “for access to information, defining itself as a watchdog and critic, defender of freedom of the press and access to information that should be public.”

In 1938, the Edmonton Journal won the Pulitzer award for its campaign against the “Accurate News and Information Act,” an act introduced by Social Credit Premier William Aberhart. This legislation would have forced Alberta’s newspapers to publish official replies to any news story the government deemed inaccurate and to reveal all their sources to the government. The Journal fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court and the act was overturned (Simons, 2003).

The incident with Juliet O’Neill would have brought back memories to Journal publisher J. Patrick O’Callaghan. In April 1982, three days after Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law, officers entered the Journal office with the intent to search and seize all business files, editors files and books. Unlike the O’Neill case, they had no search warrant, but instead used the Combines Investigation Act, claiming they were acting as part of a federal investigation into media ownership. Again the Journal took the matter to the Supreme Court, winning a decision that the search was a violation of privacy and property rights. In yet another landmark case, the Journal argued against a law that kept court records private, and the resulting Supreme Court decision stated that, “a democracy cannot exist without freedom to express new ideas and to put forward opinions about the functioning of public institutions.” (Edmonton Journal, About Us).

This determined fighting for free speech and freedom of the press is supported legally through Advocates in Defence of Expression in the Media (AdIDEM), an organization dedicated to the “protection and enhancement of free expression in Canada and abroad.” It’s heartening to know that journalistic freedom of speech and media law have strong advocates in this country. But its also discouraging to see continued attacks on freedom of speech, such as that experienced by Juliet O’Neill.

Freedom of speech and free expression is coming under attack in different ways due to the advent of the Internet. In recent months I’ve become increasingly conscious of issues of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the implications of publication on the Internet and personal privacy. Universities are traditionally bastions of free speech, and open debate is the hallmark of the university experience for both academics and students. Students have the right to free speech, and the right to speak their mind on subjects that may be highly controversial. This has often led to probleMs. Students at Concordia university in Montreal discovered this two years ago, when several of them exercised their right to speak out on the topic of “Palestinian human rights.” The resulting backlash resulted in suspensions and student uprisings (Briarpatch Magazine, 2001).

This begs another question – what if exercising one’s freedom of speech in the press causes harm to others? Where is the line crossed between free speech and words that harm or slander an individual or group? We’ve seen this taken to extremes too. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses comes to mind – a case where the writer’s opinion of Islam has resulted in a death sentence. But should sensitive topics be avoided and never discussed or debated in case someone is offended? The written word will always be susceptible to misinterpretation and misreading of intent. How do we avoid upsetting or offending readers by our words?

There are also instances where an individual represents a group. Sometimes their words are taken to be the words of the group, when this is not necessarily the case. Many may recall the words of Premier Ralph Klein during the BSE crisis, when he commented that the farmer whose cow tested positive for the disease should have just “shot, shoveled and shut up” instead of following the protocol and reporting the sick animal to authorities (CNEWS Canada). In the media furor that followed, many in Klein’s government were quick to distance themselves from his ill-chosen words, to ensure that the public did not assume that this was a PC policy. Most reasonable people, however, knew that Klein’s comments had no relationship to government policy. They realized that he was stating his own opinion – an opinion that, while unpopular, was held by at least some people in Alberta. Personally, I respect an organization in which individual members are free to express what they think and feel. It gives me confidence that all opinions and sides are being heard and considered, not just those of the majority. I would be somewhat suspicious of a group where everyone is always in agreement. This is particularly true of university groups, where freedom of speech is a core value.

As students at a distance university, we have an additional dimension to the whole issue of freedom of speech. We rely on electronic communication to a very high degree, including email and online forums/chatrooms. Our student newspaper/magazine is unique in being one of the very few (if not the only) such publications that are exclusively online. When we state our opinion to other students in a virtual hallway, if we communicate a controversial idea in a forum or email, or if we write an article, letter, or commentary in our student newspaper, that opinion ends up on the largest possible worldwide forum – the Internet.

To that end, a small item in Saturday’s Edmonton Journal caught my eye. It was only a few paragraphs long, but the message was chilling in its implications. The item carried the title, “Defamatory e-mails cost Toronto man $75,000.” Over a period of six months in 2002, Nick Weir posted some 48 messages on an Internet chat room. The chatroom involved was part of a website devoted to stock holdings, and access requires a member sign up. This particular chat room was dedicated to discussion of stock holdings in Vaquero Energy Ltd., a Calgary oil and gas company, and the messages were directed at Vaquero Energy’s President and CEO, Robert Waldner. Messages accused Waldner of “running the company for his own benefit” and compared him to Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, calling him “insane, retarded, a moron”. In the court decision, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Adele Kent ordered Weir to pay $65,000 in damages and $10,000 to Vaquerro. She wrote that the messages were “particularly vicious,” and that the emails “severely attacked his reputation.” What compounded the matter, according to the judge, was that the defamation “took place on the Internet, where publication is worldwide and instantaneous” (Edmonton Journal, January 31/04).

So where does that place us? As writers published on the Internet; as students discussing things on online forums whether private or public; as council members debating controversial topics in meetings reproduced online; as students commenting on the opinions of other students via email or in forums; as students giving feedback to the student newspaper – we are all potentially in a position of possibly saying something damaging about someone, or of having something said about us, that will end up on the Internet, “where publication is worldwide and instantaneous” causing significant harm to an individual’s name and reputation within a very short time. With such legal precedents as the one above, any of us could find ourselves in a courtroom facing charges. While in this particular case it may seem like Weir’s comments were blatantly defamatory, words are subject to interpretation by the reader. A relatively innocent comment could be taken as something quite different and a writer could unintentionally cause harm or offend. I find this sobering.

As students, as writers, we need to feel free to state our opinions without fear of negative personal consequences. Freedom of speech is a core value of a democratic society. Freedom of speech within a university is essential. But with freedom comes responsibility. Ubiquitous privacy laws are drafted in a futile attempt to protect our privacy – even as the Internet exposes us and lays us bare. Once something is published on the Internet – it’s out there for anyone to read, download, and forward. The Internet has changed how we communicate, and it has changed our ability to express ourselves freely.

Ottawa Citizen, January 23/04. O’Neill ‘clearly’ no criminal: PM. “We are not a police state,” Martin insists; charges now unlikely. Mark Kennedy, Mike Blanchfield & Anne Dawson.
O’Neill, Juliet, January 23/04. A slow-motion robbery: When the RCMP came to a reporter’s home to search for her confidential sources of information, not even her most personal belongings – or her privacy – were spared. Edmonton Journal/Vancouver Sun,
Briarpatch Magazine, December 2001. Backlash on Campus: A student union is under attack for being too successful at organizing resistance to the corporate agenda.
Simons, P. (2003). In defence of the public’s right to know: The Journal’s unrelenting defence of freedom of the press has helped shape Canadian law and won international acclaim. Edmonton Journal, November 11, 2003.
IdIDEM. Advocates in Defence of Expression in the Media.
Edmonton Journal, About Us.
CNEWS Canada. September 17, 2003. Klein says “shoot, shovel, shut-up” on mad-cow crisis wasn’t meant literally. Judy Monchuk:
Edmonton Journal, January 31/04. Defamatory e-mails cost Toronto man $75,000. Alberta Digest.