On February 16, 1998, the hosts of CFNY-FM’s (Toronto) morning
radio show, Humble & Fred, aired a short audio excerpt from Episode 111 (“Tom's
Rhinoplasty”) of the adult television cartoon series South Park. The excerpt
was inserted between a station/morning show identification spot and a current hit song.
The South Park excerpt among the boys and Cartman went as follows:
“What the hell are you doing, Cartman?”
“My mom said, If you wanted to become a lesbian, you had to lickcarpet.'”
“Well, I got an Indiglow [sic] Girls CD. The guy at therecord store said it was perfect.”
“And I got these killer Birkenstocks.”
“This is a bunch of crap. I’ve been licking this carpet forthree hours and I still don’t feel like a lesbian.”
[Parody choral conclusion, apparentlyinserted by CFNY-FM but clearly not part of the original South Park episode, to thetune of Beethoven's Ninth] “That’s disgusting, Hallelujah.”
On the day of the broadcast, a listener sent the Secretary General of
the CRTC a letter stating:
Please treat this letter as a formalcomplaint against Q102 “The Edge”, a Toronto radio station.
On the morning of February 16, 1998 at about 8:43 a.m. the stationbroadcast a joke which disparaged lesbians based upon their sexual orientation bysuggesting that some people were trying to become lesbian or feel like a lesbian by”licking carpet”.
I found this unacceptable discriminatory language and I ask that youtreat this as a formal complaint against the station and commence a hearing with regard tothe question of their continued licensing.
The General Manager of CFNY-FM replied to the complainant on March 27
in the following terms:
Your letter of complaint of February 18,1998 to the Secretary General of the CRTC was forwarded to us by the Canadian BroadcastStandards Council. The matter as outlined in your correspondence relates to lesbianismwith a specific reference to “licking carpet”.
The material which you heard was aired on the “Humble &Fred” morning program at approximately 8:30 a.m. Upon review of the material I canreport that the show’s producer played an excerpt from the television show SouthPark from which the actual audio clip was taken. As you are probably aware, SouthPark is a highly popular television program aired on Canadian stations. Thisparticular episode occurred on February 15, 1998 on the Global Television System.
The Edge is a “new-rock” based radio station that directs itsprogramming fare to an audience between the ages of eighteen-to-thirty years. It is inthis context that this presentation occurred. We hold the position that the programmingcontent which was aired would not have been perceived by our audience as disparagingtoward lesbians in any way. Our audience is young, progressive and demanding of irreverenthumor and satirical analysis of contemporary issues. Considered in the context of ouraudience profile and tastes, we believe the remark was not inappropriate. The audience towhich this station appeals is most vocal in any area where it believes the station oversteps a boundary of good taste, or disparagement of any class of people, whether it bebased on sexual orientation, race, creed, or color.
To the best of my knowledge, we have not received any additionalcomplaints as a result of the single airing of this television clip.
We have retained the audio broadcast of February 16, 1998 at therequest of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and if the audio clip, in the view ofthe Council, disparage lesbians or is viewed to have contained “unacceptablediscriminatory language”, then this station will abide by the decision of theCouncil.
We regret your discomfort with the material and apologize for anyoffense you may have taken as a result of this broadcast. As a defender of civil libertiesand free speech you should be particularly appreciative of the fine balance between freeexpression and the establishment of appropriate limits. This is an exercise that we asbroadcasters engage in on a daily basis. In this particular instance, we believe theremark did not contravene the standards of the day when considered in context and withregard to the target audience.
Please note: the Supreme Court of Canadahas now ‘read in’ the words “sexual orientation” into Alberta’sHuman Rights Code. You ought to do the same.
Recognizing that every person has aright to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms,broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that theirprogramming contains no abusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based onmatters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status orphysical or mental handicap.
There is nothing complex about thematter under consideration here. The short skit in question is intended as a parody. Itplays on the double entendre of the word “fag”, which is used primarilyin Britain and its former colonies as a slang term for cigarette, and which has a slangusage in North America to describe a gay man. The sole issue for the Council to consideris whether or not this use of the term was abusively discriminatory vis-à-visgay men. In the view of the Council, it is not. While possibly an unflattering term, itdoes not, in the Council's view, rank with certain racial or ethnic epithets (which itdoes not wish to repeat here), particularly since members of the gay community use theword themselves from time to time in a non-discriminatory fashion. At worst,”fag” could be considered to be in poor taste, a matter on which the CBSC doesnot rule. In consequence, the Council finds that there is no breach of the Code.
In this case, while the Council is fully aware of the attempt to make fun of a sexual proclivity of lesbian couples, it is equally aware that the particular sexual practice is one engaged in by heterosexual partners as well. The resounding reference to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s Hallelujah chorus to underscore the allegedly “disgusting” nature of the practice delivers the program’s less than serious perspective on that sexual activity but the truth is clearly that South Park’s creators (and CFNY-FM by extension) thereby comment more on that practice than its practitioners. An irreverent spoofing it is, not unlike the general thrust of South Park itself. In poor taste, likely; however, in the Council’s view, it would be a narrow interpretation of both South Park and CFNY-FM’s broadcasts to conclude that the comments made regarding this non-exclusive sexual activity were intended to represent an abusively discriminatory undermining of lesbianism per se. In the view of the Ontario Regional Council, it falls far more into the category of the k.d. lang self-parody in CHQR-FM re Forbes and Friends decision noted above than into the category of bitter, hostile, abusively discriminatory material dealt with by this Council on some previous occasions. Whether or not it passes a taste test is not for the Council to judge, but the broadcast does not amount to a breach of any of the broadcaster Codes.
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, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s response responded to some aspects of the issues raised by the complainant although it seemed to dwell more on a justification of the South Park excerpt on the grounds of the popularity of the television series and the demographics of the radio station’s audience. While irreverence is not per se unacceptable, the fact that the comments is question “would not have been perceived by [CFNY-FM]’s audience as disparaging toward lesbians in any way” is irrelevant. The question is rather whether the comments would reasonably have been viewed as abusively discriminatory by the CBSC Regional Council made up of broadcast and public representatives and charged with the interpretation of the industry’s Codes. In any event, as discussed above, the Council has not found the comments in breach, and it does acknowledge the entirely collaborative approach of the station’s General Manager regarding the Council’s conclusion as well as his attempt to be responsive to the complainant. Consequently, the broadcaster has not breached the Council’s standard of responsiveness. Nothing more is required.