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Franklin Carter on Fighting Censorship in the Age of Twitter

By Mark Leiren-Young

Photo of Franklin Carter

People who care about freedom of expression in Canada have likely read something by Franklin Carter — but they may not realize it. He’s an unsung hero for Canadian creators and publishers.

A long-time member of the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee, Carter has drafted most of its letters and statements over the past two decades. He’s also the one fielding questions and comments from other committee members and incorporating their ideas into almost everything the committee sends into the world.

After years of drafting opinions for others to deliver, Carter became one of the first people Canadian media call to discuss free speech issues. He has been interviewed by The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and National Post, and he’s on speed dial for CBC radio shows.

Carter stays on top of free expression issues in Canada — and elsewhere. He regularly updates other committee members on what’s happening where and which issues are worth shining a spotlight on. He’s a stalwart defender of free expression, freedom to read and access to information. His knowledge of these subjects verges on encyclopedic. For his unwavering dedication to free expression, the BPC chose Carter as its 2019 champion of free expression.

I’ve known Franklin since my first stint on the Freedom of Expression Committee in the late 1990s. He’s always been modest about the amount of work he does to fight for Canadian free speech and, as a professional editor, he’s precise about his words. So, I wasn’t surprised when he opted to do an email Q&A.

Q: What’s your secret origin story? How did you first get involved with the BPC and its Freedom of Expression Committee?

A: In 1995, I decided to become a self-employed editor and joined the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC). I was 33 years old. In the following year, EAC was looking for a representative to sit on the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee. The opportunity appealed to me, so I stepped forward. I remained EAC’s representative until 2003 when I started selling my research and editorial services to the committee. I still work on contract for the committee. …

Volunteers come and go, but I stayed on the Freedom of Expression Committee for years because I was passionate about intellectual freedom and because I found the issues fascinating. I eventually became one of a small number of committee members who knew the history of free expression in Canada. I knew the issues and the people. I became an “expert.”

Q: Why do you think freedom of expression matters?

A: Freedom of expression, which includes freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is part of intellectual freedom.

Intellectual freedom is necessary if we want to receive ideas and information and think intelligently about them. Freedom of expression is necessary if we want to share ideas and information and participate in debates.

Good debates help us identify and discard wrong or bad ideas. Good debates also foster better ideas which help us improve society.

Societies that protect and extend intellectual freedom make all kinds of progress while societies that discourage or stamp out intellectual freedom stagnate.

We need intellectual freedom — and freedom of expression — to solve our problems (e.g., political, economic, social, scientific, environmental) and make our lives happier, better and more secure.

Q: How do you convince other people that freedom of expression matters?

A: When I write or speak, I rely on facts, reason and plain language to make my case. I also listen to people and calmly respond to their questions and objections. However, this strategy doesn’t always work. People who react negatively to a publication — people who experience fear, anger or disgust and then demand censorship — are not always receptive to calm, factual and reasoned arguments in favour of free expression and the freedom to read.

Q: What was your first encounter with censorship? Did anything predate your official involvement: something in high school, something you came across in your work as an editor?

A: I grew up in Etobicoke (which is now western Toronto) in the 1960s and 1970s. I lived in a comfortable middle-class home in a safe and leafy suburb. My parents encouraged reading, a love of art, and educational achievement.

When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and 1980, I felt annoyed when the Ontario Board of Censors cut out parts of movies (such as Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum) or banned entire movies (such as Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby). Who were the people making these decisions for me and other Ontarians?

I also noticed that men’s sex magazines — chiefly Playboy and Penthouse — made a lot of adults nervous or indignant. … I wanted to read them but was too intimidated to buy them. My parents wouldn’t have tolerated their presence in our home anyway.

Years later, as an adult, I bought and read copies of Penthouse and Playboy. I watched The Tin Drum. (I still haven’t seen Pretty Baby.) I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t think the moral panics were justified.

The 1960s and 1970s were also years of the Cold War. I became aware of the Cold War when I was a boy. I knew that our society faced a great enemy, the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted to radically change our way of life and could destroy us in a nuclear war.

We couldn’t get away from the Cold War. We were reminded of it every week in the news media. I remember seeing images of grim-faced Soviet leaders reviewing military parades in Moscow’s Red Square. I remember watching TV footage of U.S. soldiers fighting communist guerrillas in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

When I turned 19, I entered the University of Toronto and sought to learn more about the Soviet threat. I spent a large part of five years (1980–85) studying the history, theory and practice of communism. I learned that the Soviet dictators used censorship, among other methods, to maintain their power and oppress their people.

In the academic year of 1984–85, I also took a seminar course on the history of censorship in Western Civilization. Professor Paul F. Grendler asked the students to read various arguments for and against censorship from the days of Plato in ancient Greece to the 20th century. The course was fascinating.

Ever since my university years, I have associated censorship with authoritarian, illiberal politics. Today, I think censorship is an attack on freedom. Most of the time, censorship is unnecessary and does not protect us.

Q: Now that we all live in the Twittersphere and everything is online, why is anyone still trying to ban books?

A: If some people feel alarmed, disgusted or angered by something that they see in a book or a magazine, they may also feel the need to do something about it. If they try to ban a book or a magazine from a public library or a public school, they probably feel good about themselves for taking action. They can say to themselves and others that they are public-spirited citizens who are making their community a better place.

If you mention freedom of the press, they’ll tell you that press freedom has limits. If you mention the freedom to read, they’ll say people shouldn’t be reading “dangerous” or “offensive” publications.

Censors want to remove the sources of their alarm, disgust and anger. They also want control over what people read.

Q: Who or what do you consider the biggest threat to freedom of expression in Canada today?

A: Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are the biggest threat to free expression in Canada. A SLAPP is a meritless lawsuit. The plaintiffs are usually wealthy people. The defendants are usually not as wealthy, and they have often published something truthful that annoys the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs file their lawsuits, not because they have strong cases and expect to win, but because they want to force defendants to spend precious time and money in court. The plaintiffs want to financially punish the defendants for speaking out on a public issue. The plaintiffs also want to intimidate other would-be critics from speaking out.

The costs of a SLAPP to a defendant can easily rise into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The lawsuits can last for years.

Today, only two provinces — Quebec and Ontario — have anti-SLAPP laws in force. The government of British Columbia wants to reintroduce an anti-SLAPP law. The other provinces and territories could benefit from having anti-SLAPP laws, but their governments don’t seem to be interested in enacting them.

Q: Is there anything you’re okay with seeing censored?

A: Yes — child pornography. Society has a compelling interest in suppressing photographs of children who are sexually abused for the entertainment of others. The authorities must arrest, convict and imprison the people who make and distribute these photographs.

I’d also consent to the censorship of the details of Canadian and allied military operations during wartime. Later, after the war ends, I’d want to see the censorship lifted.

Q: If the Freedom of Expression Committee’s prize were a magic red pencil that let you edit Canada’s freedom of expression laws, what would you revise, rewrite or remove?

A: I’d make Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms absolute. I’d disallow limitations and exceptions to the fundamental freedoms listed in the section.

I’d narrow the authority of the Canada Border Services Agency to ban or destroy imported publications at the international border.

I’d also encourage provincial and territorial governments to enact anti-SLAPP laws.

Mark Leiren-Young (leiren-young.com) is an author, playwright, satirist and host of the Skaana podcast about ocean issues. He first joined the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee to represent the Playwrights Union of Canada in the late 1990s. He now represents the Writers’ Union of Canada.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2019.