Free Speech Not Safe From Attack by Canadian Media Corporation

When the bottom line is threatened, corporations typically show little concern for holding the line on political principles such as freedom of expression. In capitalism, freedom is too often just another word for maximizing profits.

But even when we have no illusions about the predatory nature of modern corporate capitalism, there’s something particularly disheartening when a media corporation abandons free-speech principles. Journalists are supposed to be the good guys on freedom of expression, right? If for no other reason than self-interest, shouldn’t media managers support these principles?

Yes, but apparently not when ideology gets in the way, as seems to be the case at Canada ’s largest media corporation.

CanWest — owner of newspaper, television, and online properties, including one of the country’s national dailies and a TV network — is trying to use trademark law to punish political activists’ free speech in a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

This case is relatively simple: CanWest’s founder, Izzy Asper, was a vocal supporter of Israel , (he’s been quoted as telling the Jerusalem Post, “In all our newspapers, including the National Post, we have a very pro-Israel position . . . we are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada.”) and CanWest papers have maintained that ideological commitment since Asper’s death in 2003.

To highlight this pro-Israeli slant in CanWest papers, the Palestine Media Collective produced a parody of the Vancouver Sun that included such stories as “Study Shows Truth Biased against Israel, By CYN SORSHEEP.” As with most parodies, some of the attempts are clever and some fall flat. But there’s no way to not recognize it as a parody. (You can see for yourself)

Because the folks who produced the parody were anonymous (they’ve since stepped up to identify themselves publicly), CanWest sued the printer and another activist who had passed out a few copies, Mordecai Briemberg, claiming a trademark violation. Such a suit is legitimate only when the plaintiff can show there’s a reasonable likelihood that people will confuse the fake with the real and that some harm will result. In this case, there clearly is no confusion and no harm, and hence no serious claim. But CanWest presses on.

Calling the Collective’s paper “a counterfeit version” that amounts to “identity theft,” CanWest seems to want to frame this as a kind of intellectual-property terrorism: “This piece was not satirical. It was not a clever spoof. It was a deliberate act to mislead and misinform thousands of people by using the actual Vancouver Sun masthead, logo and lay out,” reads a company statement on the case.

According to a 2007 story in the Vancouver Sun, CanWest believes that the defendants were “motivated by hostility to the principal shareholders of the plaintiff and by a desire to undermine, or hurt, the business of the plaintiff and its principal shareholders” and “harbour antagonistic views towards the plaintiff, its principal shareholders and the reporting and editorial opinions expressed in the plaintiff’s publications, including in The Vancouver Sun.”

This all seems a bit thin-skinned for a media company, given how journalists take pride in their role as tough critics. It’s true enough that the activists in question don’t seem to like the reporting and editorial opinions of the Sun and its parent company. And it’s not unusual for those who believe that an information source is unreliable to encourage people to seek information elsewhere. So, I suppose there’s a fair amount of antagonism on all sides. As for motivation, I have interviewed Briemberg, and I didn’t pick up on any hostility. He’s a longtime activist, driven by the concerns for social and economic justice that motivate most people on the political left. If he’s hostile to anything, it’s to injustice.

But this can’t be about feelings, of course; it’s about freedom of speech and press in a democratic society. If CanWest prevails — if citizens’ judgments about the quality of a newspaper’s coverage can be the grounds for a lawsuit — then media criticism in Canada is made more difficult and democracy suffers. In a mass-mediated society, people must be free to critique that powerful institution just as they critique government and other businesses.

That brings us back to journalists and freedom of expression. Given this situation, one might expect a flood of stories by Canadian journalists to defend freedom of expression and criticize CanWest for its bullying tactics. But apart from the story in the Sun, my search revealed one news story in the Toronto Globe and Mail and a mention of the case by one of that paper’s columnists. Some web sites have reported the story, and activist groups are weighing in. Professional associations of librarians and teachers are on record opposing the suit. But where are the journalists from the corporate press? It’s no surprise that journalists at CanWest papers are keeping their heads down, but why the silence from most others?

CanWest is a big company with an ideological axe to grind. We should critique the company’s abuse of power in filing the suit and count this as a reminder of the potential problems that come with media concentration. But the silence of other journalists should trouble us even more. When a profession that provides so much of our information won’t hold itself accountable, it’s a threat not just to journalism but to democracy.

Addendum: Gary Engler, a journalist at the Vancouver Sun, informed me that the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 2000 (the union representing journalists at the Sun and Province newspapers) has passed a resolution condemning the CanWest lawsuit and also voted to send a resolution condemning the suit to the British Columbia Federation of Labour convention later this fall. “We have published a prominent article in our union newsletter that all 2,700 members of our local (including most newspaper journalists in B.C.) receive,” Engler said. “Our national union, which represents thousands of print, broadcast and other media workers across Canada has also criticized Canwest’s lawsuit.”

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.