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Free speech, for postal workers and soloists

By | National Post on Apr 13 2015

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The very different stories of concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa and a Toronto letter-carrier working for Canada Post have combined to provide a useful lesson in free speech.

Lisitsa is the musician whose concert the Toronto Symphony Orchestra cancelled after Lisistsa authored hostile Tweets about the Ukrainian government, complete with Nazi comparisons. Much controversy ensued.

The letter carrier’s tale has been less widely covered, but amounts to this: The carrier objected to having to deliver a community newspaper called Your Ward News, and the carrier’s union agreed.

Global News reported that Mark Brown, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal workers, said, “We believe that (Your Ward News) could be hate mail. … Our members are very concerned about delivering this type of mail.”

But Canada Post insisted that the newspaper — the March edition of which included an image of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in a Nazi uniform — doesn’t violate their guidelines for mailable material. A spokesman told Global News, “We do not have the right to refuse a mail item because we or our employees object to its content.”

It’s worth asking, then: Who got it right? The TSO, which dumped Lisitsa for her offensive speech, or Canada Post, which refused to dump Your Ward News when its content offended a mail carrier?

The answer surely has to be both, for the key to any question of free speech is who is doing the censoring. The TSO is a private organization, run by a board of directors and dependent on charitable donations and ticket-sales to keep it going. In 2014, the Symphony received nearly as much financial support from government grants as from private individual or foundation donors, which lends it more of a quasi-public flavour than some institutions, but it clearly could not survive on the government money alone. Ultimately, as a private charity, the TSO should, and does, maintain every right to hire and fire musicians as it sees fit, including because it’s not impressed with a musician’s tweets. (Or perhaps more to the point, because current and prospective Symphony donors are not impressed with a musician’s tweets.)

A key part of the TSO’s status as a private organization is that it means anyone it censors still has other options. Lisitsa is not welcome on the TSO’s stage, but she’s still heading to Alberta in June to play with the Calgary Philharmonic, which has said it continues to welcome her as a soloist.

Even if no major symphony were willing to host Lisitsa, due to her tweets, minor ones might. A small orchestra could even be gathered together simply for the purpose of giving an audience a chance to hear Lisitsa play. Even in as rarefied a world as classical music, no one institution has a monopoly on delivering concerts.

Canada Post is another story. I’m a big believer that the crown corporation actually has many strong competitors out there — so many that its very necessity is highly questionable — but so long as it continues to exist as the country’s main postal operator and be owned by the Queen, then it remains at heart a government operation with a broad monopoly on mail delivery in Canada.

That means that Canada Post must treat the mail even-handedly, delivering publications without making value judgments about offensive political material. Unlike a private organization, which may say yes and no to all manner of expression for virtually any reason — including a disagreement over how to interpret Rachmaninoff — a crown corporation has an obligation to be neutral and dispassionate about the content it carries. If you are censored by Canada Post, there are no other mail-delivery options available to you to send your messages across the country. (That there are many non-mail options that are not only comparable but actually superior to Canada Post is an undeniable reality, but says more about the absurdity of maintaining Canada Post than it does about the crown corporation’s responsibilities when it comes to speech.)

Free private people, companies, and charities judge and reject all the time; as well they must. That’s how society sorts through ideas and opinions. It would be impossible to challenge mistruths and bad theories otherwise.

But government judgment and rejection of expression is a different beast. It allows those in political power to stifle criticism of themselves and their policies, and it usually leaves the censored without alternative avenues for speaking their thoughts.

That’s why the content of Valentina Lisitsa’s tweets and the content of Your Ward Newscould be equally offensive (perhaps some would argue they are), and it would still be right to say that the former’s “censorship” is not truly a violation of free speech. But Canada Post’s refusing to deliver the controversial paper would be.

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