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On Freedom of the Press

Unpublished letter to the Vancouver Sun July 16, 1997

By Kay Stockholder

Recent opinions by Daniel Maas and Paula Brook published in the Vancouver Sun regarding the complaint by Canadian Jewish Congress against Doug Collins and the North Shore News seem to have missed the crucial point about freedom of the press. A free press is but a subset, albeit a vitally important one, of citizens’ rights to free expression generally.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association intervened in the recent hearing before the Human Right Tribunal to articulate the principled defence of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a fundamental freedom protected in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it is a cornerstone to a free and democratic society in which the citizens, not governments, are the ultimate sovereign rulers. The society that permits a government to determine which views citizens can express and have access to, including the really obnoxious and possibly hurtful ideas that are part of the landscape of political ideas, is the society in which citizens have abdicated that sovereign role.

In the BCCLA’s view, the problem with section 7(1) of B.C.’s Human Rights Code, which applies as much if not more to statements by citizens than newspapers’ publication of the ideas of others, is that it fundamentally undermines democracy because it takes away citizens’ responsibility to engage in issues of public debate and to determine for themselves what ideas will form the basis for our society’s laws and public institutions. Free speech doesn’t mean that citizens are obliged to accept all ideas as having equal merit. On the contrary, citizens have a democratic responsibility to publicly reject ideas that they find wrong or harmful. But, in relieving us of that responsibility, the Human Rights Code weakens democracy rather than strengthens it.

To paraphrase the political philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn, Canadians subscribe to freedom of expression not to defend the financial interests of a publisher or a distributor or even a writer. Rather, we defend the right of speakers and citizens to receive all viewpoints because we as citizens will only be fit to govern ourselves if we have faced squarely and fearlessly everything that can be said in favour of our laws and public institutions and everything that can be said against them.

A free press is only important because it is one of the more important mechanisms, with all its flaws, for the distribution of ideas. Without that free flow of ideas, democracy can’t flourish.

Kay Stockholder