Freedom of speech and its consequences

The United States Congress has embarked on the process to impeach President Donald Trump this week, and it’s all going to play out on live television.

The country is deeply divided on the process, and it is very likely going to get very ugly as it plays out.

The polling organization FiveThirtyEight has support for impeachment at 49.1 per cent, and those who don’t support it at 45.3 per cent. I guess the other six per cent or so don’t care?

In any event, it’s going to transfix most of the U.S. population for the next while.

Meanwhile in Canada, we have our own divisive issue underway, the removal of hockey broadcaster Don Cherry from his pedestal atop the hockey world.

Everyone knows Don Cherry. He’s always been loud, bombastic and controversial. His remarks last weekend about how everyone in Canada should be wearing a poppy for Remembrance Day were construed by many people as being anti-immigrant. They certainly weren’t the first time people took offence to something Cherry said, but perhaps there were more people offended this time than at any other.

While Cherry insists he did not say the word ‘immigrant’, he did use the phrase ‘you people.. you love our way of life’.

The Canadian Press reports that after Cherry’s comments the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council was so overloaded with complaints that it exceeded their technical limits and they had to stop accepting complaints. It crashed the server, so to speak.

So obviously, the comments touched a nerve.

But Cherry has many supporters too, and a petition appeared almost immediately to have him reinstated. There were well over 100,000 signatures on the petition after a few days.

That’s fair enough. Cherry is very popular, despite his history of blunt statements.

But, this is not an issue of free speech being stifled, as some are trying to frame it.

We all have the right to say whatever we want. But we also have to understand that what we say or do can have consequences. It may offend people. It may offend a lot of people. And then the organization you work for when you make those statements may choose to sanction you for them.

Let’s look at former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick began kneeling during the U.S. anthem at the beginning of games to protest the issue of police violence against the African American community in that country. Many people took offence. Kaepernick no longer has a job in the NFL. He exercised his right to free speech, and the league’s owners and management exercised their right to throw him out of the game.

Was it fair? Not really. But it happened because he chose to act on a controversial issue.

Don Cherry made the same choice. He threw out a statement that could very easily be interpreted as anti-immigrant, and he was fired.

The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council simply takes complaints, it does not advise a network on what to do when something controversial is said on air.

“The CBSC has no jurisdiction over the employment or operations matters of its member stations, nor can it require a station to remove an on-air host,” the council said in a statement.

The NFL is a privately-owned organization, and so is Sportsnet. Another privately-owned company may choose to take on that controversial person.

Nike, for example, rather than keep with the NFL’s boycott of Kaepernick, made him the face of a new ad campaign.

Canada’s other sports network, TSN, may choose to take the risk and hire Cherry. They certainly had no problem buying the rights to the old Hockey Night in Canada theme song out from under CBC’s nose. If they believe hiring Cherry will help their ratings, they may pursue it.

But they should do so knowing that Cherry’s history of controversial statements is a long one, and he is not likely to change his ways like he changes his suits.

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