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 Posted Wednesday, March 3, 1999

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Vancouver Sun
December 9, 1998

Letters Desk

If a columnist voices unpopular opinions, then it's the right of the publisher to tell the columnist to take a hike. -- Paula Brook, Vancouver Sun , December 9, 1998

Business rights versus speech freedom

by Paula Brook


AS THE great American journalist A.J. Liebling once wrote, freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one. More proof of that, just in.

I write this with trepidation, and with faint hope that the weirdos who sent me unsigned letters denigrating my Jewish forebears after last year's columns on Doug Collins have since moved to Idaho. It's no fun taking the wrong side in the free-speech wars -- suggesting, for example, that there are limits to what an opinion columnist ought to opine, or that a newspaper owner may be right to draw the line. But that's my opinion (go ahead, fire me) and anyway, who said journalism was supposed to be fun?

Different columnist, same complaint this time around. It's Grego Felton of The Vancouver Courier versus the Canadian Jewish Congress -- the advocacy group that challenged Collins and the North Shore News in front of a B.C. Human Rights tribunal last year, and lost.

The Courier clash was far shorter and cheaper for all involved, except, that is, for Felton, who paid with his freedom to write what he believes is the truth about Israel -- i.e., that it's built on the blood of the Palestinians.

Over the last few years he has penned a number of columns to that effect, including one last May in which Israel is equated with the formerly racist regime in South Africa: "There is no fundamental difference between the two apartheids," argued Felton, disregarding the million or so Arabs who are full citizens of Israel, and the nine who sit as members of the Knesset.

Felton went on to "marvel at how successfully the Jewish lobby has used its financial and political clout to buy, bribe and bully the U.S. into bankrolling Israel's existence."

That column netted the Courier losts of mail, mostly supporting Felton, claims editor Mick Maloney. It also netted the editor and his columnist a warning from their then-boss, Sam Grippo, CEO of Lower Mainland Publishing, who apparently didn't put much store in Maloney's letter count. There are about 10,000 Jews living in the Courier's free-distribution area, including a good number of business owners who advertise in the paper -- or used to. When lawyer and CJC vice chair Nissan Goldman called Grippo to complain, he found not only an open ear but full agreement.

"Sam hated that column," Goldman told me. "He called it reprehensible. He told Felton to stop writing about Israel and the Palestinians if he wanted to keep his job."

But last month Felton struck again, describing the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord as a "sham" and the militant Islamic group Hamas as "morally and legally correct" in its refusal to accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

The phones lit up at the CJC again, but this time callers got sterner advice: Forget writing to the editor. Just tell him to stop delivery.

On Nov. 4, the CJC released a letter to the community and to the media, explaining its position: "At a time when the Jewish, and indeed, the entire world community is gratified that Israel and the Palestinian leaders are moving cafeully and cautiusly forward to a secure and lasting peace in the Middle East, readers of the Courier should not be subjected to what amounts to an endorsement of a terrorist organization seeking to destroy Israel and to foment a civil war among the Palestinians."

This time, Grippo called Goldman -- to say sorry, that column shouldn't have slipped through the editorial net. It won't happen again.

Maloney gave a choked interview with the Western Jewish Bulletin : "I have received a directive not to publish any anti-Israel commentary in my newspaper," he said, suggesting that the CJC took Felton's Hamas comment out of context. This was echoed by Rafeh Hulays, a director of the Arab Community Association of B.C., which countered the CJC press release with its own, arguing that a full reading of the column makes it "perfectly clear" that Felton does not support Hamas's tactic or objectives." (Not at all clear to me, but then I suppose I'm biased.)

The North Shore News chimed in: "The forces of censorship headed by the Canadian Jewish Congress continue to steamroll over any criticism of Israel or other things Jewish," lamented editor Timothy Renshaw. "Readers have been left with the issue half discussed."

I think there was a better case for the issue being half-discussed when Felton was the Courier's one and only commentator on the Middle East. Rafeh Hulays speaks eloquently about the need for a frank and balanced debate in the media, and he's spot on when he says we must not tolerate the vilification of those who raise the issue of justice and human rights for the Palestinian people." The problem is, the Courier has not (and cannot) supply a forum for such a debate -- no more so than the North Shore News could properly challenge the accepted history of the Holocaust.

I say this in fondness for the paper that gave me my start in journalism 22 years ago. The Kerrisdale Courier was a smart little good-news freebie back then, and basically still is today -- though not so little and for the most part smarter.

The owner knew this, and acted. Which raises this question: Was the "silencing" of Felton a violation of his free speech, or an expression of what civil libertarians call the "marketplace of ideas" in full swing?

The latter, I say. Just as a columnist is within his rights to express his opinions, readers are within their rights to find his words offensive, and to say so -- to the circulation or sales department. And if those offended people have numbers behind them, and are represented by an advocay group, more power to them. And if the owner responds by saying, you're right -- reprehensible speech is no longer free around here -- then decisions are taken and life carries on, and as long as the government stays out of it we do not call it censorship. We call it business.

Our opinion
WE MAKE plain, in publishing this further contribution to our dossier on the origins of anti-semitism, that we do not support terrorism in any shape or form. But we do support free speech, and the right of journalists to research and write what they find to be true, as opposed to the commercial needs of their publishers to suppress it.

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