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Free speech or foul speech?
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 23 février 2012

A recent ruling by Montreal city council president Harout Chitilian banning certain words and phrases considered to be anti-parliamentary has got more than a few tongues wagging about the limits of free speech when foul speech is banned.

Last October the council chairman banned the use of certain terms considered to be offensive in an effort to promote civility at city council meetings. His ruling was based, in part, on the officially updated list of un-parliamentary terms made available by the National Assembly of Québec.

He also added certain terms, at his discretion, to an evolving list of words and phrases constituting unacceptable speech. “Supplementary terms, deemed to be hurtful, violent, insulting and which undermine the integrity and privilege of elected officials are banned during council meetings,” he said.

The list of forbidden words goes far beyond swear words or terms exposing the recipient to potential harm. They’re terms that might be considered slander in a court of law when ordinary citizens have a dispute, but which are generally considered to be part of the thrust and parry of politics. These include “lie, “demagogic, and “plot”.

Also on the hit list are innocuous terms like “cheeky” and common expressions like “he/she’s got a lot of nerve”. However, some might argue that the 32 year-old computer engineer who was recently elected to represent the district of Bordeaux-Cartierville has got a lot of nerve.

Murray Levine, a sports fund-raising advocate, was recently barred from asking a question at city council when he used one of the banned words by suggesting that Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand “would be a liar” if he didn’t follow through on promises to make enquiries about fund-raising sports events in other cities.

Levine also insulted Mary Deros, the councillor for Park Extension, by calling her a “bunch of crap”. Yet, Justin Trudeau, MP for the riding of Papineau, got a mere rap on the knuckles when he used ruder language for excrement in calling Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of s - - t”.

And in another context, a recent newspaper editorial accused Trudeau of “an element of demagogy” – one of the very terms banned by Chitilian attributing his string of outbursts lately on everything from quibbling with the Conservative government’s description of honour killings as “barbaric”, to saying that he would rather live in a separate Quebec than in a Canada with Stephen Harper’s imprint on it, to the pressures and prerogatives of being the son of his famous father.

This raises the question of the ethics of applying a differential standard, one which penalizes ordinary citizens for expressing themselves freely, if rudely, and another which protects the prerogatives of elected officials in the name of polite speech.

[ Deborah Rankin ]

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