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Free speech not safe from attack by Canadian media corporation

By       Message Robert Jensen     Permalink
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When the bottom line is threatened, corporations typically show little concern for holding the line on political principles such as freedom of expression. In capitalism, freedom is too often just another word for maximizing profits.

 

But even when we have no illusions about the predatory nature of modern corporate capitalism, there’s something particularly disheartening when a media corporation abandons free-speech principles. Journalists are supposed to be the good guys on freedom of expression, right? If for no other reason than self-interest, shouldn’t media managers support these principles?

 

Yes, but apparently not when ideology gets in the way, as seems to be the case at Canada’s largest media corporation.

 

CanWest -- owner of newspaper, television, and online properties, including one of the country’s national dailies and a TV network -- is trying to use trademark law to punish political activists’ free speech in a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

 

This case is relatively simple: CanWest’s founder, Izzy Asper, was a vocal supporter of Israel, (he’s been quoted as telling the Jerusalem Post, “In all our newspapers, including the National Post, we have a very pro-Israel position. … we are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada.”) and CanWest papers have maintained that ideological commitment since Asper’s death in 2003.

 

To highlight this pro-Israeli slant in CanWest papers, the Palestine Media Collective produced a parody of the Vancouver Sun that included such stories as “Study Shows Truth Biased against Israel, By CYN SORSHEEP.” As with most parodies, some of the attempts are clever and some fall flat. But there’s no way to not recognize it as a parody. (You can see for yourself by reading online at http://www.straight.com/article-144790/emfrankem-challenges-CanWest?#)

 

Because the folks who produced the parody were anonymous (they’ve since stepped up to identify themselves publicly), CanWest sued the printer and another activist who had passed out a few copies, Mordecai Briemberg, claiming a trademark violation. Such a suit is legitimate only when the plaintiff can show there’s a reasonable likelihood that people will confuse the fake with the real and that some harm will result. In this case, there clearly is no confusion and no harm, and hence no serious claim. But CanWest presses on.

 

Calling the Collective’s paper “a counterfeit version” that amounts to “identity theft,” CanWest seems to want to frame this as a kind of intellectual-property terrorism: “This piece was not satirical. It was not a clever spoof. It was a deliberate act to mislead and misinform thousands of people by using the actual Vancouver Sun masthead, logo and layout,” reads a company statement on the case.

 

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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