Readers’ letters: where is the free-speech line?

By
John Hayden

A year ago this February, I picked up a copy of the Cobourg Daily Star [since consolidated with two other papers to form Northumberland Today] and found the editorial page dominated by a sprawling 950-word letter to the editor written by Gordon Gilchrist, a sitting public school board trustee from Baltimore, Ontario.

The header read “Turn off the immigration tap before its too late” and it singled out particular groups (Jamaicans, Muslims, Indians, and others) as “enemies”, creating a “Trojan Horse” situation undermining “Canada’s glorious history”, causing “economic and environmental distress” and “reduc[ing] each Canadian’s share of this country’s wealth”. Mr. Gilchrist stereotyped immigrants relentlessly as “aberrations” and “quasi-Canadians” living in “ghetto-like enclaves” and threatening his “unsullied… beautiful and blessed land.”

I couldn’t help but think that Mr. Gilchrist had thrown us back into the exclusionist era of pre-WW2 Canadian immigration politics. But the letter clearly overstepped the bounds of rational debate and contained unnecessarily hurtful language directed against identifiable minority groups. In good conscience, I decided I would have to respond.

First, I wrote to the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board’s Director of Education, Sylvia Terpstra, expressing my reservations about trustees publically propagating stereotypes and encouraging discrimination.

By then, other local and provincial media outlets began covering the controversy, including The Globe and Mail [sub required] and CBC Radio 1 regional news bulletins.The School Board officially censured Gilchrist and he was removed from committee work.

I also wrote a letter to the Ontario Human Rights Council (OHRC) who quickly advised me to submit my complaint to the Ontario Press Council (OPC). Perhaps given last year’s Mark Steyn debacle, the HRCs had learned that until there is constitutional clarity on the notion of regulating journalism, they would avoid entangling themselves in more charter-related controversies involving offensive language and freedom of the press.

So, after bringing myself up to speed as best I could on journalistic ethics, I built a case against the Cobourg Daily Star’s publication of the Gilchrist letter, constructing arguments based on precedent established in Hajara Kutty and Mohamed Elmasry vs Toronto Star and The Manitoba Press Council Complaint #06-02.

To my mind, the Gilchrist letter brought into sharp relief a series of important questions in journalistic ethics which I respectfully submitted to the OPC for clarification through adjudication:

  • Are negative stereotypes of identifiable minority groups de facto beyond the bounds of rational debate and unnecessarily hurtful?
  • Does a vigorous public debate mitigate the initial harm of publishing an unnecessarily hurtful letter to the editor?
  • Are editors ethically responsible for everything they print? (i.e. can they evade responsibility for printing letters to the editor which contain harmful content?)

By the time the OPC Executive Committee had scheduled a hearing (a brisk thirteen months after publication of the letter) I had left Northumberland to pursue graduate studies overseas. I offered to fly back for verbal arguments but it was eventually decided that the case would be adjudicated based on written submissions alone—which now totalled close to fifteen pages plus appendices.

Although my complaint was ultimately dismissed, the Cobourg Daily Star printed only half of the text of the OPC decision. I had to request through the OPC’s Executive Secretary, Mel Sufrin, that the Cobourg Daily Star follow guidelines and print the full text of the decision, which they finally posted on their website on 16 March 2009. In the previous version they had omitted the OPC’s reservation about the offensive tone of the Gilchrist letter.

In the end, the sad outcome of all of this is that my complaint seems to have overturned the precedent set in Hajara Kutty and Mohamed Elmasry vs Toronto Star. It is now ostensibly permissible for newspapers to print material that ascribes negative intrinsic qualities to identifiable minority groups. The OPC has accepted the Cobourg Daily Star‘s assertion that these “facts are not in dispute”, which I find to be nonsensical. It supports the notion that ascribing intrinsic negative qualities to identifiable groups is fine so long as this promotes a lively debate. It allows irrational and potentially harmful views of politicians to be printed in the first person as letters to the editor instead of through the process of normal reporting, assuming no responsibility for their content.

While the OPC apparently seeks to “encourage thoughtful criticism of the press,” I am not particularly impressed with the process, the outcome, or the conduct of the Cobourg Daily Star in response to my criticisms. I can only hope that this isn’t the last word on the subject, and that other armchair ethicists will come forward and continue this important public discussion on journalistic ethics in Ontario.

John Hayden is a graduate of History at the University of Toronto and a MA candidate in Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. He can be contacted via email at john.hayden@utoronto.ca.

[Note: J-Source contacted current editorial director at Northumberland
Publishers, Mandy Martin, and invited her to provide a rebuttal column. Martin
connected us with Eileen Argyris, the managing editor of the Cobourg Daily Star
at the time Gilchrist’s letter to the editor was published (she has
since been laid off during a recent round of cutbacks). Argyris agreed
to write a column to deadline, which J-Source planned to publish
alongside Hayden’s as a form of debate on the issues involved. Due to
personal comittments, Argyris was ultimately unable to contribute a
column.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *