One of the most blatant and abusive attempts at censorship in Canadian history involved Vancouver’s alternative newspaper the Georgia Straight. Part of the hippie youth culture that challenged conformity and authority, the Straight was founded in 1967 and soon had a circulation of sixty to seventy thousand. One of its founders later admitted to not knowing “any particular reason for the founding beyond a general pervasive desire to annoy establishment institutions in general and established newspapers in particular.” [Barman 1991] The case of the Georgia Straight reveals the remarkable lengths to which authorities have gone in censoring unpopular ideas. According to a 1970 Senate committee report on the mass media (Davey Report, 1970),
“There are tens of thousands of people who think Vancouver’s underground newspaper, the Georgia Straight, is a marvellous publication – provocative, funny, thoughtful, courageous, honest and joyous. There are probably hundreds of thousands of people in Vancouver who, whether or not they’ve read a copy, think the Straight is obscene, immoral, scurrilous, and subversive – an all-round menace to youth. This latter judgement appears to include most of Vancouver’s municipal and law-enforcement Establishment, for the Straight has been subjected to intimidation and harassment, both legal and extra-legal, that we can only describe as shocking.”
On the day that the Straight’s office opened (a week after its first issue appeared), a police patrol wagon arrived to pick up its editor, Dan McLeod, to investigate him for vagrancy, a comfortably nebulous charge that the police commonly used to harass undesirables. It took less than six weeks for Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell to attack the new paper. He urged the city licensing inspector to use his power under section 277(c) of the City Charter to suspend the Straight for gross misconduct. Describing the paper as “filth,” Campbell made it clear that “as far I’m concerned, this was a ‘rag’ paper; it was a dirty paper; it was being sold to our school children; and I wouldn’t tolerate it on the streets any longer.” [Clément 2008] Within weeks, the paper was suspended. Justice Thomas Dohm, presiding over the BC Civil Liberties Association’s challenge to the suspension order, went so far as to praise the mayor for his actions. The case went to the BC Court of Appeal, where a representative from the attorney general of Canada employed a freedom-of-the-press argument to defend the Straight. Although the court ignored this line of reasoning, it nonetheless opted to void the suspension on the grounds that the city licensing inspector should have provided a hearing to explain it. However, the court’s ruling was mooted by an earlier decision of the licensing inspector to lift the ban after he was satisfied that the paper had changed its content. Undaunted, the mayor asked city council to reinstate the suspension, and when council refused, he hired a private law firm to consider an injunction.
The first two years were a constant battle for Straight publisher Dan McLeod: Municipalities prohibited the sale of the paper on their streets, and when McLeod and his vendors sold it openly, they courted arrest. For poking fun at a judge, the Straight was charged with criminal libel, igniting a legal battle that lasted for years. For the ribald humour of its comics pages, it fought nine obscenity charges. For printing instructions on how to grow marijuana, it was charged with “inciting to commit an indictable offence.” A sex-advice column from a hippie doctor brought four separate obscenity charges. In 1969 alone, the paper faced twenty-two criminal charges against its editor and employees. And in March 1968, it was found guilty of defamatory libel after it awarded Magistrate Lawrence Eckhardt the Pontius Pilate Certificate of Justice for sending a group of hippies to jail because they were loitering outside a courtroom.
In May 1969, McLeod was charged with obscenity under section 150(1)(a) of the Criminal Code. The case focused on pictures published in the Straight and two articles titled “Penis De Milo Created by Cynthia Plaster-Caster” and “Young Man Wants to Meet Women 30 Yrs Old for Muffdiving, etc.” The trial judge dismissed the charges because undue exploitation of sex, which formed the basis of the Crown’s obscenity charge, was not part of the test established by the Supreme Court. He also refused to rule that the pictures were obscene, and he “dismissed the charge, having no evidence before him of what the word ‘muffdiving’ means, and declining to take judicial notice of a word that he has never heard before” (Regina v. McLeod, 1970).
Throughout most of these developments, the mainstream media remained silent, perhaps because they cared little for hippies or were intimidated by the possibility of being charged with libel. Their silence led the Senate committee on mass media (Davey Report, 1970) to comment as follows: “It saddens us to report that most daily papers have been either lukewarm in their editorial approach to this issue, or have ignored it altogether.” Vancouver’s mainstream press confined itself to explaining why the Straight had been charged with libel, and no critical commentary or discussion of freedom of the press appeared in either the Vancouver Sun or the Vancouver Province. It was not until 1973 that Allan Fotheringham, a popular Vancouver Sun columnist, commented on the court’s imposition of a $1,500 fine against the Straight. Fotheringham lamented the inability of the mainstream media to criticize a campaign of injunctions and suits that targeted other members of the press: “Some day some scholar interested in the law and its abuse is going to do a serious study of how authorities in this town … have attempted to intimidate and to bust the Straight by persistent harassment and prosecutions which more often than not failed. The documentation will cause a scandal and everyone will ask what the rest of us were doing – including the newspapers – while this was going on.” [Vancouver Sun, 14 December 1973]
Barman, Jean. The West beyond the West: A History of British Columbia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Campbell, Charles, and Naomi Pauls. The Georgia Straight: What the Hell Happened? Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1997.
Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
Krotter, Mark M. “The Censorship of Obscenity in British Columbia: Opinion and Practice.” University of British Columbia Law Review 5 (1970): 297-325.