Friday, April 11, 2008

The big fish and the small

Sean Berry's post reminded me of something one of my professors said the other day about the Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada case. The question there was about prior restraint - possibly 'obscene' books and magazines getting held up at the border by zealous customs officials. Little Sisters book store is in here in Vancouver, and is always getting into flaps with the border guards over the stuff they try to bring into the country.

My prof was saying that back then, the progressive, civil libertarian critique of censorship was that the big fish like Harper Collins were having their books waved through customs with no trouble at all, while comparable material from small publishers - the stuff destined for the Little Sisters shop - was being stopped. So, it was wrong to have a censorship regime that let the big companies off the hook, while catching all the independent, limited-audience publishers.

Now, though, the perception is very different. As Sean points out, it took having one of their own compadres taken to the tribunal before big media took notice of the hate speech process. When it came to state censorship of hate speech back in the 80s and 90s, people either paid no mind, or were happy to see the fringe wackos and the newsletter writers being called to account for their words.

But the tribunals, it seems, don't operate the way customs officials do. Probably, the human rights people feel they have a broader mandate, and a more important duty. The border guards gave the major companies a pass because they didn't want a lot of attention - negative publicity, calls for reform, etc. But the tribunals, well, either they are not afraid of bad press, or they didn't foresee how much bad press they would get from this Maclean's case. Either way, they sure have the media's attention now.