Canada and the First Amendment

December 31, 1993

Surly border authorities searching cars for contraband newspapers; scores of citizens being arrested as they crossed with copies of the paper; a judge telling newspapers what they can and cannot print, broadcasters what details they can and cannot transmit of a lurid trial.

Events in an Eastern European dictatorship? No, events in Canada, our democratic neighbor, where all of this happened the other day when a judge in the province of Ontario attempted to draw a media curtain between the U.S. and Canada, restricting coverage of a gruesome Ontario sex-murder trial to the U.S. side of the border.

But it's not only friendly relations between the U.S. and Canada that make the common border porous; it's also communications technology. TV viewers in Windsor and Niagara Falls, Ontario, pick up Detroit and Buffalo newscasts describing the trial. The Detroit News, one of whose drivers was turned back at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel with 1,700 copies, made the complete text of the banned story available on the newspaper's equivalent of The Baltimore Sun's SUNDIAL. And some Canadians, defiant and angry at the attempt to keep news from them, simply drove across the border, read the stories on U.S. soil and returned, thumbing their noses at Canadian border guards.

The incident served to emphasize the difference in attitude toward free speech in the U.S. and Canada. Here, where the Bill of Rights has been around for nearly as long as the country, freedom of the press takes precedence over other constitutional rights except under extraordinary circumstances. In Canada, which has had the equivalent of a Bill of Rights only since 1982, press freedom is not nearly so sacred. Some say that's just as well -- and that it's perfectly appropriate in a nation markedly less violent, one in which a lurid trial like the one in question is an aberration. (Indeed, the unfettered freedom of speech and press in the U.S. might be one of the reasons ours is such a violent society.)

The Detroit News, discussing Canada's national character, noted coyly: "Canada could have had French culture, British government and American know-how. Instead, it got French government, British know-how and American culture."

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