“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

-English Proverb

This is false logic. As a new media professor, I live in a steady stream of constantly updated newsfeeds through my social media networks. Daily, I watch how these newsfeeds also affect my students in their analysis of issues, perception of events, and subsequent social interaction and political engagement.

As a result, I am deeply opposed to the easing of the CRTC regulations to ban “any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” With the addition of the second clause, how do we know when sticks and stones break bones? What line has to be crossed? What would my students say? And what would I say to myself as a younger student?

Words do lead to political and social agency. As I watch a new generation struggle with the social impact of negative comments, from the recently banned Bathroom Wall application in Facebook on which any friend can anonymously post what “they really think of you,” to young teens struggling with their identity, precipitated by prejudice of the newfound right, which has led to the rash of young gay suicides in the United States and here, I grieve for an earlier generation that could turn their social network off when they entered their home after school, and build their identity in private.

I was gaybashed growing up. It was one incident, and I was fortunate that it was not posted on a website, permanently accessible to all. The scar would have been even deeper then, and more public in its impact, written on Facebook’s Bathroom Wall, and perhaps led to suicide, as online postings have done for some gay youth. I was able to lick my wounds privately, because no one tweeted or posted video of my attack. Today, I support campaigns such as “It gets Better” which work to prevent gay teen suicide. These campaigns are made possible by those who work in the arts and media, such as Rick Mercer, but few have time to constantly generate responses to change public opinion. Social media campaigns cannot keep up with the generously funded, onslaught of news reportage, and online petitions are discounted by the government as “slacktivism.”

24/7 feedback on who you are does not allow adolescents to develop who they are independently of peer review, and form their identity backstage, with time down for family support. These same principles apply to the body politic as defined by news organizations. Our Canadian identity will be eroded by a barrage of misinformation masquerading as “news,” but will be really used to encourage bigotry and self-hatred if these CRTC regulations are weakened.

Just as social media is beginning to determine adolescent identity, so will news deregulation alter our national identity, and embed the culture of name-calling, travelling down from the media into high school hallways. It will be alright to sling mud, and this news stream will not be able to be able to be turned off long enough to be examined in light of where and how it originated, particularly for impressionable youth, as there will simply just not be enough time to do so. As a journalism student said on the petition Keep Canadian Media Honest — Don’t Let the CRTC Deregulate Truth in Journalism: “I’m currently a Media and Communications student in my final semester. I chose this path so that I would be able to share the truth with the public. How can that be taken seriously if journalists can lie?”

And I add to this — why does the onus shift have to the public to have us verify facts, rather than fact-checking the core mandate of the broadcaster? Who has time to do so?

Information is often separated from its original source in this social mediascape, and its content abbreviated through Tweets, links or viral memes, while travelling quickly to impact public opinion before its sources are confirmed for their veracity. (An example of this is the accusation that a cinema had bedbugs; the Toronto International Film Festival spent hours doing damage control to end this unfounded rumour, but still lost business.)

The proposed easing of the CRTC regulation will encourage this trend, and allow a quick and dirty “truthiness” to dominate the airwaves. Hate speech is powerful, and is used to end political discussion with epithets like “leftard,” “poverty pimps,” “commies” and “pinko-kooks” — terms originated in Sue-Ann Levy’s Toronto Sun articles, names which now frequently come up in the online comments. Ms. Levy, who is married to a woman, will have a soapbox on the new Sun TV channel to name-call in public, as of March 31, if this CRTC regulation passes, without censure. It is curious that Ms. Levy feels she has the right to vilify the left, but would be quick to call foul if her sexual orientation was mocked in kind. May I gently remind her that the left fought for her right to marry?

The Conservatives govern through emotion, and it is not a coincidence that revision of what constitutes truthful reporting is being slyly introduced by the Harper government to be enacted September 1, before Sun TV takes to the air on March 11. Emotion will be permitted to trump rational-critical discourse, and ramp up the volume on vicious attacks on the left by the right. Truth in journalism is essential to a functioning democracy, and this narrowing of the scope of truth will make us callous to the nuances of kindness, just as researchers are finding with adolescents, who are exposed to constant criticism through their social media networks, are becoming more callous to their peers. We have built a just, tolerant, and diverse society, with a higher standard of journalism and education, and Canadians deserve more from the CRTC in terms of what defines acceptable information for broadcast.

In addition, the easing of this ban further harmonizes Canada with the United States, and its Fox News Network, to undercut our Charter Rights of Freedoms. The right contends that Sun TV guarantees freedom of speech, and its opponents, such as Margaret Atwood, are anti-free speech, however, is it my right to say anything I want without social repercussions? The Crown did not think so in the case of Ernst Zundel, and his neo-Nazi denial of the Holocaust. His case was determined “to likely to incite hatred against an identifiable group”– and if that group is the left, progressive, “elitists,” why it is permissible that it is put further under attack by Sun TV through the CRTC?

At Harvard, one can say anything one likes, as long as there is a name attached to it to debate it. Will there be time for debate when the burden of proof lies with the judiciary system as to whether the Canadian version of Howard Stern, or Glenn Beck, spewing hate speech, “is likely to incite hatred against an identifiable group”? Will it be possible to protect the Charter of the Rights of Freedoms then?

I was fortunate after I was beaten up. I had a friend follow me into the bathroom, and console me in an era where homophobia was the norm. I dedicate this column — which is my submission to the CRTC — to every adolescent I know who is different, and is told so daily, and to the gentle courage of my long ago friend.

I do not want the media to be allowed to aid and abet hate crimes by the loosening of norms for truth in reporting, and encourage name-calling on air, so that adolescents are left on their own, with no back up from the government, to be attacked by words just as I was bodyslammed against a cafeteria wall, with no recourse to defend me from the culture of hatred perpetuated by high school in groups.

If it is not true, it is not news, and it should be recognized for what it is — tabloid journalism descending into hate speech for the purpose of entertainment. Words have the potential to be used a weapon to incite hate crimes against specific groups, and that whether this hatred is accrued incrementally, or immediately, it will be difficult to trace its point of inflammation in this ceaseless flow of media which determines our public and private identity.

My small town encouraged the homophobic small talk; I paid the price for their ruthless pettiness. Ernst Zundel and his denial of the Holocaust was the Canadian test case for this theory; I was a minor player in the application of free speech in the public domain, and I was allowed to lose my dignity, throwing my body in rage against the bathroom cubicle that day, undefended by authority.

As a new media expert, educator, and a committed, sustainable designer and environmentalist — an active member of all the groups which will be taunted, derided and dismissed by the Sun TV network — I ask that the CRTC take into account Canada’s communitarian history in relation to the application of free speech, and ensure that news networks are held accountable.

As one petition signer wrote, “A less regulated news culture will be created where the public may be inflamed by hidden agendas or political biases which will divide the people of Canada instead of uniting them.” I add to that that this new regulation will enable homophobic bigotry to be supported by public name calling, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to determine when words turn into physical assault, after these names become legitimized through entertainment-driven news.

As Canadians, we pride ourselves on the higher level of integrity usually present in our media. Let’s not endanger that special trust. There may be a student in a small town high school who is waiting for their rights to be defended by the CRTC, not overturned.

I encourage all those who want to submit their comments to the CRTC to do so today, Feb. 9, by clicking here and sign the petition by clicking here

Co-curator and contributing blogger for The Real G8/G20, Elizabeth Littlejohn blogs at Railroaded by Metrolinx

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Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...