The Price of Free Speech

There’s no such thing as completely “free” speech.

Not in the big wide world where carefully written laws wisely protect others from defamatory statements.Punishment can be dire for those who carelessly violate established rules.

Even in our democratic parliaments where elected politicians are protected by what they call “privilege” there are “rules of order” which forbid the use of certain words and phrases. Members may be protected from criminal charges for anything said in Parliamentary debate – but they can be evicted from the debating chamber if they use words deemed “unparliamentary” by the Speaker.

BC Legislature Speaker Darryl Plecas and Liberal Party House Leader Michael de Jong, QC, had a bit of a tiff over such words earlier this month.

Speaker Plecas had interrupted question period with a request that Liberals stop using phony titles when addressing questions to cabinet members. De Jong complained that as no unparliamentary language had been used in the mock title game Liberal questioners were not in violation of House rules.

Speaker Plecas ruled the fake titles were mocking or derogatory, disrespectful “and reflect poorly on this institution.” He also reminded de Jong to be careful with future challenges to his rulings.House rules are set by the members,enforced by the Speaker

A minor push and shove in the grand scheme of things, but surprising when we recall the BC Legislature has pages of words and phrases banned from the debating chamber. A quick glance down the list would have convinced de Jong he was on shaky ground defending fake titles as passing the parliamentary usage test.

A few, very few, banned words and phrases: “Art of the clown … cheap politics … chintzy … deliberate film-flam … flippant … fraudulent … less than honest … phony charades … snow job.” And that’s just a minor sampling of the words and phrases BC politicians from past eras have used, been ordered to withdraw and been evicted from the chamber if they refused to comply.

The BC list may be longer, but its banned words and phrases are mild when compared with New Zealand’s House of Representatives list. Maybe the Kiwis are better educated. They are certainly more colourful,robust, and pack a sharper punch before they are sanctioned.

In BC, an MLA will be rebuked and ordered to withdraw if he refers to a fellow member as “a fumbling old man.” In New Zealand, the Speaker has had occasion to discipline a member who accused another of having the “idle vaporing of a mind diseased.” In our Belleville Street palace of laughs, calling another member “thickheaded” would bring instant rebuke and an order to apologize. In New Zealand, a similar unacceptable accusation was recorded as “his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides.”

It drew a Speaker’s rebuke and was ruled “unbecoming, insulting, or otherwise unparliamentary.” I can’t disagree with the ruling, but confess I prefer the colourful Kiwi quote to a shout of “thickheaded.”

It’s more than 100 years ago that the great wordsmith Sir Winston Churchill showed politicians how to get around vigilant parliamentary language police. That was in 1906 when, as Under Secretary of the Colonial Office, he was asked if the government was condoning the slavery of Chinese labourers in South Africa’s Transvaal province.

He replied the word “slavery in its full sense could not be applied without a risk of terminological inexactitude.” It became an acceptable way of implying someone was lying without actually saying so.

I guess we haven’t really made much progress since Winston. Our BC politicians still shout carelessly worded insults across the floor with little thought to the use of words – or their own language rules. We hear occasional promises of reformed debate but never see it. As a New Zealand MP once said, we approach the problem of elevating debate language with “the energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral.”

And, yes, it’s on the Kiwi unparliamentary list. It is also true.

One comment

  1. de·fam·a·to·ry: adjective (of remarks, writing, etc.) damaging the good reputation of someone; slanderous or libelous.

    We have become too sensitive. Defamatory does not include unparliamentary, the latter being subjective. Political correctness, after sweeping through the rest of society, appears to have invaded our legislatures.

    Sadly, that can only thwart of modern-day Churchill and compromise political discourse.

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