Speaking, Writing and Freedom of Speech

Have you heard of Don Cherry? His name is well known in Canadian hockey circles, often for all the wrong reasons. While he’s extremely knowledgeable about the game, he’s best known for his televised Coach’s Corner opinionated rants. Mmm, yes, well he’s also known for his outlandish taste in fabric for his suit jackets! He’s controversial. Few people admit to liking his on-screen persona, but he makes money for the television stations and sponsors by getting viewers involved. At least, he did until last weekend. That’s when his comments got him fired.

His choice of words overrode his message. They were deemed racist and they riled the audience. Racism is defined as the superiority of one race over another. The Merriam Webster Dictionary says it’s “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” With that in mind, it’s hard to define Cherry’s comments as racist, although there’s no doubt they were derogatory and divisive. The station and network were quick to take steps to avoid the backlash.

If Don Cherry had apologized, that might have been the end of it, but he says even if he wishes he’d chosen his words more carefully, he stands by the truth of them. Thus his conviction (or maybe his stubbornness) brought his forty year career to an abrupt end.

Public reactions are mixed. Nobody likes what he said. Some are celebrating that this diatribe was the last straw and he’s finally been removed from the airwaves, while others are questioning if his right to freedom of speech has been quashed.

This steps into the realm of censorship and It’s a dilemma that many authors have also faced: do you speak or write from the heart and risk offending, or do you carefully filter your words to be safe?

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says “The right to express yourself and form your own opinions is an essential feature of a democracy.  Freedom of expression is a core part of the right to dissent and a basic feature of personal development … In Canada, section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects ‘freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication’.” There are lines drawn, however — lines between derogatory statements and hate speech, between criticism and defamation, lines that restrict verbal bullying and obscenity.

The National Post said recently that “book banning has become passé in Canada, and when works do get challenged, it’s often for opposite reasons than those seen in the past.” The Freedom to Read website publishes a list of some of the books, magazines and public papers that have been challenged and/or banned in Canada. It’s a selective list, yet it carries more than one hundred titles.

Parents frequently desire to protect their children from literature or art that they find offensive — words or pictures they believe are disgusting, that depict anything that opposes their personal standards of decency, that glorify evil, etc.

The Canadian Library Association resists these attempts when it comes to banning books, although individual schools districts and communities occasionally succeed within their local boundaries. The CLA states, “Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.”

So, where do YOU stand in all this?

  • Is there a difference between punishing Don Cherry for his comments, refusing public speakers with offensive agendas, and banning written words in our country?
  • What guides you in your choice of words when reading and/or writing?
  • Do you keep a particular audience in mind as you write?


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Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

3 thoughts on “Speaking, Writing and Freedom of Speech

  1. My reaction surprises me. I want to believe that when he said “you people” he meant all those who don’t acknowledge our soldiers by wearing a poppy. I agree that it’s shameful. And if I didn’t wear a poppy and I read his words, I’d feel ashamed. But I know it’s more than that. It’s a speaker’s choice of words. We have to be so careful. We have such a low tolerance for so many things that really only require commonsense and a trifle touch of humanity. I see it every day. I hear my own family saying things that make me cringe.

    Recently, I tried being diplomatic and pointing out that you can’t judge an entire race by a few actions. In fact, you shouldn’t judge anyone at any time in any place. So, what Mr. Cherry did was judge “you people” by making a judgement call as to why they don’t wear a poppy. He’s right that they should be grateful to live here. But how does he know they aren’t?

    Should he have been fired? I am not going to judge. But I would be happier if we all publicly acknowledge those who have given the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us are free to debate these issues.

  2. LOL. Look at me; I didn’t answer your questions. I wish we would be kind and loving and never use words that we know hurt or offend. But I also wish that if I choose a word that is despicable it’s because the word is the best choice for my character at that precise moment in the story.

    1. In novel writing I probably reveal a lot about myself that doesn’t belong on the page, but I don’t want to spend too much time deliberating words in a first draft. I have the opportunity to revise later, before anyone else reads them.

      It was interesting to hear Don Cherry in a subsequent interview when he acknowledged that he should have chosen better words, but that he stands by what he said — that *in his experience* people in Canada for whom English is obviously not their first language too often don’t wear poppies and he sees that as not being willing to spend the small change to support veterans. My thought is, IF that’s what he meant, he wasn’t at all clear about it. Maybe he hadn’t thought out his rant well enough, but in his position words matter a lot, and he *should* have because in his case there are no do-overs.

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