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December 1993


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Donald Theall <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 15 Dec 1993 19:39:24 -0500
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On December 13th Doug Riblet wrote:
> This article appeared in today's Wisconsin State Journal, reprinted
> from the New York Times.  It is not about film exactly, but it deals
> with issues of censorship in academia which many of us have had or
> will have to deal with.  (Reprinted without permission.)
>        __Canada closes doors to 'obscene' literature__
> No commentary from me, except to note the delicious irony of that
> assiduous customs official's name, [Corrinne M. Honey] which would make a
fine nom de porn.
> Doug Riblet
I suspect the _NY Times_ article about the Duras problem here at
Trent came about partly because the previous weekend  the _Times_ had had
an editorial  on the Karla Homolka-Paul Teale homicide cases in which the
Canadian courts had imposed a publication and media ban, which the U.S.
media disregarded.  It became quite an incident since Canadians near the
border went across to get U.S. newspapers, which in some cases Customs
and/or the police seized at the border.  U.S. TV media that talked about the
case were blacked out on Canadian cable -- we had a bit of a laugh as the
screen snowed out. Border radio stations did broadcasts which naturally
couldn't be stopped.  Since there was Internet discussion of the case, the
administration of McGill University decided to impose a ban on any Usenet
or Internet groups discussing the case -- an action that was followed by
many other Canadian universities, creating a censoring of Internet.
     While this is not directly related to film any more than the Duras
incident was, it does remind one that Canada has a complex history of
censorship and of obscenity cases that differs from the U.S. Canada did not
have any enshrinement of freedoms of speech and the press, etc. until 1981
when the present Bill of Rights was enshrined in the Constitution.  Even in
that bill the right of "freedom of expression, including freedom of the
press and other media of communication" is "subject to such reasonable
limits imposed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and
democratic society".
     Students of film interested in the issues of Censorship across the
border might find a popular book _Censored!  Only in Canada: The History of
Film Censorship_ by Malcom Dean (Toronto: Virgo Press, 1981).  U.S. scholars
unfamiliar with Canadian law may be surprised to know that it suppressed
any knowledge of John Grierson's ignominious dismissal from the National
Film Board as Commissioner following a set of _in camera_ hearings by the
Taschereau-Kellog commission in the 1940s.  Under _The Official Secrets
Act_ (which is still in force), all documents related to the hearing were
sealed.  When in the late 1970s a Ph.D. student in history at McGill who had
been inadvertently using a copy of the report -- that was on the library
shelves at Concordia University in Montreal -- to write a thesis on
Grierson, the Office of the Privy Council reiterated on the first page of
the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, the fact that the material was
banned, placing considerable pressure on McGill to suppress the thesis.
Eventually the thesis was published as a book by its author, Gary Evans.
Unfortunately I do not have a copy of the book here and am unable to give a
reference, though I am quite familiar with the whole matter since I acted as
a special reader to advise the Faculty of Graduate Studies on the problems
presented by the thesis. The restrictions undoubtedly did Grierson a major
disservice and helped conceal a McCarthy-like moment of Canadian history
conducted behind closed doors.
     I could expound at length on the general subject.  Anyone who wants
can write to me directly for more details.  In closing, I will cite only one
other aspect of Canadian activities in this area that should be of interest
to U.S. film scholars and certainly reinforces that unease that a number of
the respondents have expressed.
     Recently the Ontario Ministry of Education has set down minimal
guidelines which all the universities in the Province must use in
formulating a policy on Harassment and Discrimination.  This policy, they
are told, should cover all harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination or
situations creating a negative environment or climate that is either overt,
indirect, resulting from association or systemic.
     These regulations cover all the areas covered by the Ontario Human
Rights Code Grounds: race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin
[including language, dialect or accent], citizenship, creed, sex, sexual
orientation, disability, age (18-65), marital status, family status, the
receipt of public assistance, record of provincial offenses or pardoned
federal offenses. In delineating what constitutes the creation of a
negative environment, it is pointed out that this can be  "one of a
series of comments or conduct involving any one of the prohibited
grounds" as long as it is of "a significant nature or degree" and has
`the effect of `poisoning' the work or study environment."   To be
adversely effected by a negative environment someone need "not be a
direct target."
     A series of specific examples given of harassment, sexual harassment,
discrimination or the creation of a negative environment include: gestures,
remarks, jokes, innuendo, display of offensive materials, offensive graffiti,
signs, cartoons, remarks, exclusion or adverse treatment related to one or
more of the prohibited grounds as well as more obvious actions such as
threats, verbal or physical assault, taunting, imposition of academic
penalties, hazing and stalking.
     The province further encourages the universities in formulating
their policies "to broaden [the] grounds beyond" this minimum.
     While this legislation may be well-intentioned, the aspects that have
to do with freedom of expression, communication and communication media
cannot help but pose serious difficulties for those seriously involved in
the teaching of film, art, literature, cultural studies, etc.  Doug
Riblet, in questioning the readiness of Canadian government agencies to
 intervene in
ways that suppress speech and communication, raises a serious question,
particularly in the context of a country that: banned the importation of
Joyce's _Ulysses_ until 1952; censored _The Tin Drum_ as child
pornography; kept Freud, Havelock, Kraft-Ebbing and other such texts under
lock and key available only to advanced students -- graduate students with
special permission; brought obscenity proceedings in the 1960s against
_Playboy_ for publishing Arthur Knight's _History of Sex in the Cinema_;
and convicted a professor of Cultural Studies at Trent and the organizer
of an annual university-sponsored Film Festival for a violation of the
censorship act for showing a film -- which was a feminist-oriented critique
of advertising  by Vancouver film maker, Al Rizutis. I suspect those who are
uneasy about the incident described in the N.Y. Times article are wise and
prudent, whatever the self-serving nature of U.S. establishment media
going after Canada.
     I only bring these to the Screen community's attention, since it might
provide a model for other political jurisdictions both in and out of Canada.
                                   Donald Theall