CFNY-FM re Humble & Fred (“Danger Boy on a Cross”)

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 97/98-0644)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), P. Fockler,M. Hogarth and M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

In the days leading up to Easter 1998, the Humble & Fred show on
CFNY-FM (Toronto) presaged and promoted a forthcoming public duct-taping of a CFNY radio
personality known as Danger Boy, but often referred to as Danger Christ in the
context of this stunt, “to a cross”. The “event”, which was to take
place on a well-travelled street corner in Toronto on April 9, the day before Good Friday,
created immediate controversy. This controversy was used by the hosts to further promote
the stunt and to this end, many clips from callers who commented on the offensiveness, or
lack thereof, of this stunt were broadcast in the days leading up to the
“event”. The stunt was at times referred to as “the Jesus thing” and
the “crucifixion” and was touted as “the most authentic re-creation of the
events of Holy week”. It was “explained” as follows by the hosts of the
Humble and Fred show:

Here is the thing. On Thursday, we were going to put ourproducer Danger Boy on a couple of sticks, call it a cross for lack of a better word, andwe were going to have the Easter Bunny there, collecting money for charity.

The publicized occurrence ultimately turned out to be the duct-taping
of Danger Boy to a life-sized cardboard cutout of CFNY-FM afternoon drive time host Allan
Cross, “A. Cross” and donations were collected on site and the money raised was
given to the Christian Children’s Fund.

The Letter of Complaint

On April 8, a listener wrote to the CBSC stating that:

I am writing this letter to inform you that the radiostation CFNY-FM 102.1 is planning to “crucify” a person called “DangerChrist” with “duct tape” in Toronto on April 9, 1998 as a radio stunt.

I find this extremely offensive. They made comments that “maybe weshould crucify the “Easter Bunny” also. The DJs (Howard and Fred) are very awarethat this time of year is Christianity’s most sacred time, and yet they still insiston mocking this event.

This is a defamation of the Christian faith. Because they state overand over “what is the big deal with this?” They are obviously not respectingothers right to choose freely. I have chosen the Christian faith and that is my right.Others may choose the Jewish faith, the Muslim faith and that is their right as well. The”cross” to the Christian represents all that our faith stands for. They (Howardand Fred) have insisted over and over that it is “just two sticks” but thenunder the same breath they call it a “crucifix”. This stunt goes against theCanadian Human Rights Act. They are claiming that it is “just a joke”. They areobviously trying to increase their morning show at the expense of defaming the Christinafaith. Couldn’t they think of something else?

What makes it worse is that they choose to play people’s commentson the air (at their discretion) and they choose to play comments that favour theirposition “it is only a joke… what is the big deal?” only adds insult toinjury. They are exercising their right to free speech at the expense of others … theirlicense should be revoked immediately.

With all the problems in this world we don’t need somedisrespecting DJ’s getting off on the power they possess by using a radio stationmicrophone. Why couldn’t they use that power for something really good? No, thesebuffoons choose to use that power to increase their ratings and their pocket books all atthe expense of someone else’s personal beliefs.

The Broadcaster’s Response

The General manager of CFNY-FM replied to the complainant on April 20
in the following terms:

I am writing in response to your letter of April 8, 1998to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) objecting to comments made by morningshow personnel of CFNY-FM, (the Edge).

We appreciate the time and effort you have taken to listen to ourprogramming and to provide your comments and concerns. Let me assure you that we take ourresponsibilities as a broadcaster very seriously. At the Edge, we work to ensure all ourprogramming complies with the Broadcasting Act, the Radio Regulations and the standardsexpected of us as a member of the CBSC.

Your concerns relate to a series of comments made on the Humble andFred Show regarding their intention to duct-tape one of the regular guests on the show,known as “Danger Boy”, to “A Cross” on the day before Good Friday. Youhave stated that this plan was offensive to Christians and a “defamation of theChristian faith.”

Before addressing your specific concerns, I believe it would be usefulto provide some detail regarding this comedy sketch. Throughout the week of April 6, 1998,our morning hosts humble Howard and Fred, discussed their intention to tape Danger Boy to”A Cross”, in order to raise money for charity. On April 9th, from 5:00 a.m. toshortly before 7:00 a.m., Humble and Fred advised listeners that Danger Boy was then onlocation at the corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets awaiting his duct-taping to “ACross”, as promoted in the preceding days. He was accompanied by Chicken Shwarma,another of our on-air personalities, outfitted in an Easter Bunny costume. Dubbed”Easter Shwarma” for the day, he was handing out chocolates to passers-by andaccepting donations.

At 7:00 am, Humble Howard went live to the corner location and DangerBoy was then attached to a life sized replica of our afternoon drive time host, AllanCross – the “A Cross” to which our earlier promotions referred. Humble alsokicked off the fund raising with a $100 donation. These funds were subsequently offered toThe Christian Children’s Fund.

Throughout the remainder of the Humble and Fred Show, listeners wereadvised that Danger Boy had been attached to a replica of Allan Cross in an effort toraise money for charity and that he and Easter Shwarma were continuing to acceptdonations. Humble explained that all references to “A Cross” had been to thislife-sized cardboard cutout of Allan Cross. The show continued with a series of livereports from Danger Boy, each accompanied by the explanation that all reference to “ACross” had been to Allan Cross, as well as Humble and Fred’s usual mix of comedyand music. We also broadcast a number of listener calls regarding the skit, both positiveand negative.

This sketch was intended to be a humorous play on words. It was not anattempt to elicit contempt for Christians. Indeed, we believe the fact that Danger Boy wasnot duct-taped to an actual crucifix is evidence of our sensitivity in this regard.

The Edge appeals primarily to young adults between the ages of 18 and30. We attempt to serve this audience not only with cutting edge new music, but alsothrough humourous, sometimes irreverent, commentary and sketches by our hosts. Duct-tapingDanger Boy to a life size photograph of Allan Cross is an example of this kind ofprogramming.

We regret that prior to the actual sketch you found the references toattaching Danger Boy to ” A Cross” in bad taste or offensive. We hope that nowthese comments can be placed in context you will se that they are neither abusive nordiscriminatory, but rather humorous. The Edge is committed to being responsive to itslisteners and to the CBSC. I hope this letter serves to allay your concerns. Thank youagain for taking the time to express your views.

THE DECISION

The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under
the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB). The relevant
clause of this Code reads as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 (Human Rights)

Recognizing that every person has a right to full and equal recognitionand to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall endeavour toensure, to the best of their ability, that their programming contains no abusive ordiscriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnicorigin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status or physical or mental handicap.

The Regional Council members listened to a compilation tape of the
segments relating to the “event” in question and reviewed all of the
correspondence. The Council considers that the broadcasts in question do not violate the
aforementioned clause.

The Content of the Program

The CBSC has faced situations similar to this on several previous
occasions. They occasionally involve serious material (as in the case of the film The
Last Temptation of Christ
) but more often comedically intended situations, very often
involving the parodying of religious practices or icons, if not religion itself. In almost
all cases which have come before the CBSC as the result of a public complaint, the
religion in question has been a Christian religion, whether Protestant or Catholic. This
may result from the case that Christianity in its broadest sense is the dominant religion
in Canada, therefore, the religion best known to the population and the one which would be
likeliest to be publicly parodied. Quite simply, the parodying of less representative
religions may not reach the lowest familiarity level of a broad enough segment of the
population to “work” with the target audience.

It does not in the end matter why this is the case since the
principles established in the various CBSC decisions on the subject would be as applicable
to any religious group. What matters ultimately relates to the clash of the right
of freedom of speech and the right of broadcast audiences to be free from abusively
discriminatory comment on the basis of religion, as well as other grounds enumerated in
Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics. Religion is not, after all, immune from farce,
sarcasm or parody. The issue to determine is whether the barb has become a poison arrow,
and whether, in other words, the humoristic device has stepped over the farcical threshold
and into the bitter and nasty territory of abusively discriminatory comment. Disrespectful
and even apparently harsh words may be on the safe side of that threshold despite
the sensitivity of the listener of the same religious persuasion or even the listener who
is sympathetically inclined. The Council considers that, broadly speaking, gibes and
parodies which are directed ad religionem are likelier to pass the test than those
which are ad personam on the basis of religion although, even in the latter case,
they must amount to abusively discriminatory comment on that account to fail the
test.

In an earlier Ontario Regional Council decision, namely, Comedy
Network re Bill Maher Special
(CBSC Decision 97/98-0560, July 28, 1998), which
involved irreverent comments about Jesus, the Council held:

When, in fact, the jokes are analyzed one-by-one, theydo not, in the view of the Council, even attain a level which could be characterized asdisdainful, much less hateful. There is undeniably a level of irreverence but it islight-hearted, not heavy-handed. It is flippant and casual but not disrespectful. …

In any event, irreverence vis-à- vis the Church and clergy isnot unacceptable, provided it does not rise to the level of abusive or discriminatorycomment on the basis of religion. [Emphasis added.]

In a similar vein, in CKVR-TV re “Just for Laughs”
(CBSC Decision 94/95-0005, August 23, 1995), the Ontario Regional Council was called upon
to deal with a stand-up comedy routine featuring a fictional “Sister Mary
Immaculate”, played by a comedienne in the role of an Irish nun, who made a number of
jokes about religious matters. The Council concluded

While “Sister Mary”ÿs routine might not havebeen humorous to the complainant, none of her jokes — including the reference tohomosexuality highlighted by the complainant — could be construed as abusive ordiscriminatory to Christians or Catholics.

Similarly, in CHAN-TV re Last Temptation of Christ (CBSC
Decision 95/96-0011, December 18, 1996), in response to a complaint filed by another
member of the clergy, the B.C. Regional Council decided, albeit in the context of a
serious motion picture, that “they [do not] find in the film any negative attitude
toward either Christians or Christianity itself.” Referring again to the CBSC
decision in Comedy Network re Bill Maher Special (CBSC Decision 97/98-0560, July
28, 1998), the Ontario Regional Council believes that its comments there provide a fair
perspective of the CBSC on the issues of blasphemy and excessive statements alleged to be
in breach of the human rights provision of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Just as the B.C. Regional Council understood that, inthat case, “the complainant found the depiction of Christ questioning his faith andsuccumbing to temptation utterly unacceptable, even hateful”, the Ontario RegionalCouncil understands that, in this case, the complainant considers the stand-upcomic’s remarks irreverent, impious, irreligious, in short, blasphemous. For itspurposes, however, the CBSC considers that blasphemy alone would not be sufficient toconstitute a violation of the CAB Code of Ethics. It would need to be hateful,not merely irreverent, comment, abusively discriminatory, not merely impious orirreligious. At this point in the 20th century, the CBSC expects that comedians areentitled to question tradition and to tickle formal and possibly outdated values withoutfinding themselves, for that reason alone, exceeding Canadian broadcast standards.

Applying these principles to the matter at hand, the Council believes
that the entire concept was irreverent and possibly even in bad taste.  If the
latter, it is not an issue with which the Council will deal as matters of taste in private
broadcasting are generally left by the CBSC to the discretion of the individual either to
listen to or turn off.  It is only when issues rise beyond mere taste that the
Council becomes involved.  The principle of freedom of speech would be too
compromised by the overlay by the CBSC of, in effect, a micro-managed imposition of its
view of mere questions of taste.  If the former, the irreverence alone of the planned
event could not reasonably be interpreted as anything more nefarious than someone’s
idea of how to turn humour into a public attention-getter.  The Council finds no
breach of the Code in this case.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint,
the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of
the complaint. In this case, while the Council considers that the broadcaster’s
description of the promotion of the “event” was not entirely accurate
(references to “crucifixion” and to “a couple of sticks” were omitted
from the broadcaster’s version of the facts), it is satisfied that the response
adequately addressed all of the issues raised by the complainant. Nothing more is
required. Consequently, the broadcaster has not breached the Council’s standard of
responsiveness.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.