Court Overturns the CRTC N-Word Decision, Says Regulator Overstepped Authority

An appeals court has found that CRTC overstepped its authority in it’s infamous N-Word ruling.

One of the decisions that has plagued a number of debates is the infamous CBC N-Word ruling. Briefly, a CBC French program aired someone talking about a book that happened to have the N-Word in its title. So, the presenter in question used that title was describing a debate about the professor who wrote it. A viewer complained, saying that the use of the word, even though it was used in naming a book title, was offensive. The complaint was lodged against the CBC, putting the onus on the CBC to respond. The CBC responded, saying that they did nothing wrong. In response, the individual escalated the complaint to the CRTC (which is a normal progression for such complaints).

Coincidentally, the debate surrounding what was then called Bill C-11 also happened to have questions about whether or not the CRTC would guard against infringement on freedom of expression. Allies of the bill argued that the CRTC is well suited to protect the Canadian Charter when it comes to the legislation while critics say that the regulator is ill-suited to do so.

So, the CRTC promptly ruled against the CBC, one of the long time supporters of the bill. The CRTC ruled that they are guided by the Broadcasting Act and not the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Therefore, sanctioning the CBC would be in order because the N-Word happened to make it to air. Saying the situation for the CBC was awkward would be an understatement. On the one hand, they have been arguing that the CRTC can easily protect freedom of expression in the Bill C-11 debate, but on the other hand, rail against the CRTC for infringing on its freedom of expression and right to free press.

Realizing that the CRTC basically ruled that the CBC is not protected by the Charter, the CBC appealed, saying that the CRTC overstepped its authority and called the decision an “Interference in its Journalism”. While the appeal was under way, the damage was already done. There was significant questions raised both inside and outside the Canadian Senate as to whether the CRTC can be trusted to handle issues like freedom of expression. A number of Bill C-11 supporters also found themselves questioning their own positions on top of it all given the circumstances.

While the decision didn’t ultimately slow down the now called Online Streaming Act, the battle on that front continued in court. Recently, a court has ruled that the CRTC overstepped its authority in that decision and overturned the CRTC’s decision. The CBC was quite happy about the decision for obvious reasons. From the CBC:

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the Federal Court of Appeal said that the broadcast regulator made several mistakes when it ruled against SRC in response to a complaint.

In particular, the court ruled, the CRTC cited sections of the Broadcasting Act which do not give it the authority to regulate speech on the airwaves. The court sent the decision back to the CRTC for reconsideration.

“The court has returned the matter to the CRTC. We will wait for their direction on next steps,” a spokesperson for CBC/Radio-Canada said in a media statement.

“It is important to remember that this does not affect the policies we have already put in place to minimize the use of hurtful or offensive language.”

In its ruling, the court agreed with arguments put forward by SRC, the French-language service of Canada’s public broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada, and the attorney general of Canada.

“The CRTC overstepped its jurisdiction by sanctioning the SRC on the sole basis that the content broadcast on the air was, in its opinion, inconsistent with the Canadian broadcasting policy,” Federal Court of Appeal Chief Justice Marc Noel wrote in his decision.

So, the CRTC is contemplating an appeal at this stage, so it is entirely possible that the battle isn’t even over yet. The original decision did considerable damage to the regulators reputation. An appeal would no doubt further harm the CRTCs reputation. For now, though, it seems as though this current battle is favouring the CBC which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this instance.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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