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MARTHA MUZYCHKA: Free speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you want without consequences

Don Cherry's rant on Hockey Night in Canada about people who don't wear poppies has led to renewed calls for him to be removed from his position.  Postmedia News
Don Cherry. - Contributed

Can we handle one more commentary on Don Cherry, immigrants and the poppy issue? Sure we can.

For those of you who may not have heard, Don Cherry, the loud-mouthed, loudly dressed hockey commentator on “Coach’s Corner” used his platform Saturday Nov. 10 to blast non-poppy wearers for their lack of respect. In particular he referenced “you people,” those individuals who have come to Canada to avail of the country’s many opportunities, ones he said were gained through the sacrifice of soldiers.

Here’s is his exact quote: “You people love — that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy. These guys paid for your way of life, the life you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price.”

Reaction was swift. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received so many complaints about Don Cherry that their system collapsed and they are unable to accept any more complaints.

By Monday, Cherry’s reign on “Coach’s Corner” was over. Sportsnet, his employer, let him go saying Cherry made divisive remarks that do not represent the company’s values or what it stands for. Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said “sports brings people together — it unites us, not divides us,” and so Cherry left.

But Cherry, not unsurprisingly, is not without his supporters. It saddened me to see how many people missed the point. The issue is not free speech, or being over sensitive, or not respecting veterans (even the Royal Canadian Legion decried Cherry’s comments.)

First, free speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you want without consequences. Our Charter of Rights actually protects freedom of expression (see Section 2). The Charter clause means the state or its representatives cannot limit, curtail, or keep you in some manner from expressing yourself. 

In conversation with various legally-trained friends and colleagues about the issue, it was clear the Charter doesn’t cover freedom of expression in private enterprises. So Sportsnet was entirely within its rights to say, thank you but no thank you to Cherry.

If Cherry still wants to share his odious opinions, he still can. He can share them in his house, he could go to a coffee shop, he could stand on the street corner and yell at passersby (I say yell because I never have really heard him do anything but yell.).  As one friend noted though, there are still limits. Noise bylaws could keep him from talking after 11 p.m. or if his comments qualified as hate speech, he could be prevented from sharing them on Facebook or Twitter (also private enterprises that offer public access).

It doesn’t matter how you like to parse the issue, Cherry was referring to immigrants. By using the term “you people,” Cherry was othering.

Many people have heard that language and know exactly what it means. People have also used “those people” or “that kind of people, woman/man,” to achieve the same goal: “they” are not like “us.”

It doesn’t matter how you like to parse the issue, Cherry was referring to immigrants. By using the term “you people,” Cherry was othering.

Cherry knew exactly what he was saying and who he was talking about. There's no walking back from there and nor should there be. Cherry’s comments were rooted in racist principles. He made assumptions that were wrong. His comments hurt a lot of people.

The fact is, like a lot of pundits who have been around for awhile, Cherry got enough chances to change, to grow, to learn and he never used them. And now he has had to face serious consequences for his behaviour. The loss of work, income, platform, reputation has got to hurt.

But we need to recognize and accept that when we do wrong, when we behave inappropriately, when we hurt people, there are consequences. When you abuse the privileges you have been given, you should not be surprised when you lose them.

The only surprise is how long it’s taken for systems to start recognizing the long term implications of tolerating behaviour — be it racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist.

Martha Muzychka is a writer living in St. John’s. Twitter: @marthamuzychka E-mail: socialnotes@gmail.com.


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