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Freedom of speech: writers

by Archives January 31, 2001
OTTAWA – “Just because something has a plot, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a plot.”
With that, Mark Frutkin neatly summed up the attitude of several top Canadian writers gathered in Ottawa on Sunday. They attended in support of a Cornwall-area high school student jailed last month for writing a fictional tale
of a bullied kid planning to blow up his school.
The event, held in the theatre of the National Arts Centre, attracted some 400 supporters, along with many of Canada’s literary elite, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Christopher Levinson, and Michelle Desbarats, among others. Celebrity journalists Patrick Watson and Laurier Lapierre played host to
a round of readings, followed by a public forum centred on a 12-member panel of distinguished authors, creative writing teachers, and academics.
The Cornwall-area student, who can’t be named under the Young Offenders Act, was charged last December with uttering threats in a story called “Twisted”, which he read to his class. He has already served 34 days in jail, and is currently out on bail.
While the teen and his parents were on hand Sunday, organizers cancelled a public reading of his controversial story, saying they hoped to draw attention away from the teen and back to the greater issue of freedom of expression.
Despite being billed as “Artists For Freedom of Speech”, much of the discussion focused instead on violence in schools, bullying, and continuing cutbacks to education. Many parents of bullied kids argued that schools no longer have the resources to deal appropriately with troubled students.
“What bothered me the most was that this poor kid was bullied so much,” said author Charles de Lint. “And the people who should have helped him just bullied him more.”
Merilyn Simonds, whose work on the printed version of “The Valour and the Horror” landed her in a $500-million libel suit, noted that the bullies aren’t just in the schoolyards and that intimidation and censorship go hand-in-hand.
“It’s a wonderful thing when people in society have a chance to get up and speak,” said Simonds, adding that voices should never be silenced simply because others object to them or disagree.
For author Wayne Grady, this isn’t only undemocratic, it’s also dangerous.
“One of the things that artists do is to channel their fears into art,” said
Grady. “Writers channel anger into words. It’s a safety valve.”
This sentiment was echoed earlier by Michael Ondaatje, who spoke of writing as a
means of venting his frustrations as a teen.
“In the end, writers will write from their hearts, and that’s what this kid was
arrested for,” said de Lint.
However, even here a line can be crossed, according to Civil Libertarian Randal
Marlin, who read aloud the provisions of the Criminal Code against hate crimes and uttering threats.
“Uttering threats is right there in the code,” said Marlin.
However, it’s considered a crime only if there is a “reasonable assumption” that those threats will be carried out, he added.
“Just because I’m made to feel afraid doesn’t mean the person I’m afraid of should be carted off to jail,” said Marlin.
In his view, given the present environment, and in the wake of recent high school shootings, it may not have been unreasonable for police to investigate the Cornwall student’s alleged threats.
“But, when they found nothing, it should have ended there.”

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