COLUMN

A right to be bullied and bored

Basic liberties are most threatened by human rights commissions

Barbara Amiel May 4 1981
COLUMN

A right to be bullied and bored

Basic liberties are most threatened by human rights commissions

Barbara Amiel May 4 1981

A right to be bullied and bored

COLUMN

Basic liberties are most threatened by human rights commissions

Barbara Amiel

Carolyn Syrett, 13, of Toronto, Ont., has become something of a symbol of our times. When Miss Syrett was 11 years of age, she took on Hamilton radio station CKOC and won what must be considered by Canadian Human Rights Commission officials a victory for free speech. The issue was an open-line show which Miss Syrett called because she was “bored stiff.” Though she didn’t know what to stiff.” Though she didn’t know talk about, the show’s producers say it was finally decided she would discuss the ways in which her cat affected the quality of her life. While waiting on the phone, the talk show topic changed to a discussion of male strippers. The producers made a quick decision: 11 was too young to take part in a discussion of male stripping. Instead of leaving Carolyn on hold until the program was over—a fate suffered by many would-be-open-linecallers regardless of age or mental development—the producers made a tactical error and told the young caller the truth. Though Miss Syrett may have lacked the spiritual or creative resources necessary to defeat her boredom in any way except by calling a radio show, this action galvanized her. She complained to the Human Rights Commission, which after an investigation completed last month, asked CROC to apologize and make an announcement that the program is open to everyone regardless of race, origin, color, religion, age, sex or marital status—a decision that applies to all radio and television stations in Canada. The Globe and Mail summed up the incident with the headline: AGE ISN’T BAR TO FREE SPEECH, RADIO TOLD.

To the best of my recollection, age never has been. What is, alas, a restriction on free speech is the decision of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to substitute its own editorial judgment for that of the producers of the show— and by extension all individuals engaged in broadcasting or anything else. Though one would wish that the issue centred on a nobler cause than the silly topic of strippers—male, female or members of the third sex—the issue remains the same. Free speech exists where the state does not interfere with individuals who write, edit or produce information and entertainment. Free speech is not only abridged by exclusion, it is also abridged by forced inclusion. To be obliged to give “equal time” to minors or indeed the mentally retarded makes a mockery of free speech and the freedom of the press. Free speech means private individuals have the right to make unfettered judgments in their own sphere of activities without state interference. If another radio show decided to discuss male strippers exclusively with 11-year-old interviewees, the state would be as wrong to disallow that editorial decision as it was in forcing CROC to abandon its.

The totalitarian impulse behind the response of the Human Rights Commission to Miss Syrett’s complaint is deplorable but by now not unexpected. Ironically, the most serious threats to freedom of speech and basic liberties in Canada come from the various human rights commissions—provincial and federal—ostensibly set up to safeguard them. Ontario’s proposed Bill 209 to extend the powers of its provincial Human Rights Commission is a prime example. One of the intentions of such acts must surely be to protect the right of citizens to hold certain creeds—ethical, moral or religious. But the Ontario act interferes in the grossest way in a citizen’s freedom to make private choices based on those beliefs and values. By extending the prohibited grounds of discrimination to marital status—not to mention mental illness and criminal record—the act could force those citizens whose religious beliefs may hold, for example, that living together without benefit of clergy is a sin, to hire, house and do business with such people in spite of any deeply held religious conviction. More importantly, section 12 of the act makes it an infringement to disseminate anything to disseminate anything that “advocates or incites” the infringement of a protected “right.” Translated this may mean that even a discussion of, say, the legitimacy of landlords discriminating against tenants based on their economic status as welfare recipients (a newly prohibited area of discrimination under the act) or the right of a prospective employer to deny employment based on a criminal record could be interpreted as violating the Ontario bill and thus subject to punishment. For those who would suggest that such interpretation of the act is farfetched, I can remply that a wise society does not draw up legislation considering only the best circumstances of its interpretation. As one who has had experience with commissioners inviting my employers to suppress my point of view, section 12 has a chilling reality.

This is a chill in keeping with other areas of Bill 209, particularly the enforcement sections of the Human Rights Act. Traditional areas of protection, such as the right to have a lawyer present when questioned by a human rights officer, are prohibited in the current draft of Bill 209. Human rights investigators would have the power to enter business premises, accompanied by a policeman and seize any documents they want—without a search warrant. It is, manifestly, an anti-human rights bill and one with which our civil libertarians should be profoundly concerned. But given today’s spirit, our official civil libertarians will no doubt be pushing for Miss Syrett to become the chairperson of the board of inquiry enforcing the act—before she turns 14.