Free speech has a lot of enemies. There’s the usual motley crew of censors: customs officials, the morality squad, film board reviewers and their band of supporters ranging from social conservatives to anti-pornography feminists. Sometimes libraries and schools get into the fray, with parents trying to get books pulled off shelves or curriculum. Same old story.
These days in Toronto the threat to freedom of expression lies in other seemingly more innocuous places – like city beautification.
Toronto’s mayor David Miller is leading a campaign to clean up the streets by cleaning up newspaper boxes. Some people claim they have become an eyesore with as many as 20 boxes cluttering spaces around subways, bus-stops and major intersections. City officials and many of the city’s Business Improvement Associations want to get rid of the boxes.
First came a moratorium. Since 2004, no new newspaper boxes have been permitted. Now the city is trying to pass a new bylaw that would give it increased power to regulate, licence and restrict the boxes, including an increase in licensing fees to $100, up from as little as $22 per box.
Parallel to this, the major dailies have also got together with city officials to come up with a superbox, which is, well, a really big box that would contain more than a couple of dozen different publications for pickup. The superbox is currently being designed for a pilot project.
So what’s the big deal? For major paid-circulation dailies, it’s not a big deal at all. The boxes represent a minuscule amount of their total circulation. In fact, some admit it’s mostly about the street advertising the boxes provide.
But for the little guys, it’s a big deal. Community newspapers like Xtra rely almost entirely on this kind of circulation. If $100 a box is a drop in the bucket for the commercial dailies, it’s a pretty hefty tax on expression for community papers.
And when it comes to the superboxes, no one has any idea yet who is going to get access, how access will be granted and at what cost. Superboxes may present a very unique challenge for a gay and lesbian newspaper, which many folks just don’t want to have around at all.
Miller, complaining about how ugly the newspaper boxes are, told the Toronto Star in January: “I mean, this is public space, right? And what we’re essentially doing is privatizing the public space.”
Well, yes and no. Some newspapers are private and for profit. But some of the newspapers (like Xtra) are community focussed and not-for-profit. Some of the newspapers whose very survival depends on box distribution are newspapers committed to community debate. In fact, this kind of community engagement is exactly what public space should be about.
The city needs to take the role of community papers into account. Ensuring that minority voices have a chance to be heard is as an important part of a vibrant and diverse city as tidy sidewalks.
Over and over again, it’s marginal voices that get silenced. Sometimes that censorship is intentional. But sometimes it’s because the folks in charge didn’t think about how, in the grander scheme of things, marginal voices are silenced.
So here’s an idea for City Hall. Let’s learn from the history of official and unofficial censorship. Let’s start by acknowledging that freedom of expression is always threatened for marginalized communities.
Admirably, City Councillor Paula Fletcher has put forward a motion that would see minority publications like Xtra treated differently under the new rules. For example, the fee-per-box would be sliding scale and city officials would look into the new bylaw’s effect on minority publications.
Fletcher’s motion is a very modest proposal that at least acknowledges that there is a potential problem. Superboxes don’t have to be the arch enemies of free speech for gay and lesbian communities. But they might be, if no one else at City Hall pays attention.