Who could be against free speech? Not I. But today’s Globe and Mail has a simplistic editorial defending what they call “shock radio.” A radio station in Quebec City had an announcer named Fillion who reportedly was competing with New York’s Howard Stern for leadership in the rudeness sweepstakes. He must have won, for the broadcasting regulatory body of Canada, the CRTC, warned him repeatedly and then actually pulled his station off the air.
I never heard Fillion’s show, but according to the Globe editorial, he referred, for example, to the weather announcer’s “incredible set of boobs;” suggested “pulling the plug” on a psychiatric patient; and said that “foreign students, by definition, with some exceptions, are all children of the most disgusting political leaders in the world, people who are sucking their countries dry…people we call cannibals…”
Many of Fillion’s listeners were upset when he was taken off the air. Some 50,000 of them reportedly marched in a rally to support the radio station, which appealed the CRTC’s decision.
Then, in a decision last week, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the CRTC had been performing its role properly in shutting down the station.
The Globe editors strongly disagreed. In today’s lead editorial, they acknowledge the vileness of Fillion’s speech, yet defend vigorously his right to say whatever he pleased. They cite the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, arguing that freedom of the press and other media of communication is fundamental. “That Mr. Fillion is vulgar and offensive does not exempt him from those rights.…As unpleasant he is, Mr. Fillion and people like him are the canaries in the mine of free expression. If they are silenced, it means the air around us is getting thin.”
I can’t flatly disagree with this analysis. However, I cannot quite accept it either, for both culture and freedom of speech require our protection. The trouble is, we cannot always do both equally well at the same time. The issue is more complex than the Globe’s editors make it out to be.
If we’re talking about the right to orate from soap boxes in the park, then we all enjoy that freedom equally. When it comes to mass media, the situation is somewhat different. One person has access to the mike, while the rest of us have to listen or simply turn off the radio. We have no other recourse. But culture is important. We swim in a cultural environment that’s polluted, and some people are inevitably harmed by it. How are we to maintain civility of discourse when the owner of a radio station can hire any inflammatory weirdo he chooses as our “instructor” in addressing political and social problems?
The answer, of course, is to democratize communication, so it’s not all controlled from a small elite. That’s what the Internet does. I am exercising my right to free speech at this very moment. Through this blog I communicate with hundreds of other people, who all have the freedom to speak their minds. We all correct each other as equals. I invite you to post your comments below, where everyone else in the world who has Internet access can read them. In this situation, our freedom of speech is truly priceless. But as a consumer or audience of a radio show, I feel helpless to defend our culture from the vandals who are paid to be shocking.
The airwaves are public property. The government allocates bandwidth and radio frequencies to particular private stations so they can broadcast information, music, and ideas that citizens need or want to hear. If broadcasters use that license to stir up hatred or gratuitously insult listeners, the citizens have a right to replace the material with other content.
There are — and always have been — certain standards governing content. For example, each broadcasting license in Canada requires that a minimum percentage of the content be produced by Canadians rather than foreigners. This rule was introduced to protect Canadian culture, and no one objects to it. Likewise, Canadians have imposed certain limits on “hate literature,” even deporting a few hate-mongers who spout Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. If the editors of the Globe put their minds to it, I’m sure they can imagine certain utterances that they too would deem unacceptable for broadcasting.
Rights are not absolute — especially when one right is incompatible with another right. I claim the right to a culture that supports human flourishing. That involves the right to free speech. And with that right comes a responsibility to speak with due regard for other human beings. I expect no less of broadcasters.