Insult Based on Mental Illness Regrettable But Not in Breach, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, June 2, 2003 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning remarks made during a sports commentary broadcast on CHNL-AM (Radio NL, Kamloops, British Columbia), during which the commentator used the word “schizophrenic” to insult a former hockey player (now an NHL General Manager). The CBSC British Columbia Regional Panel expressed concern that the word had been used in the commentary but concluded that the comment was not abusively or unduly discriminatory towards individuals with the disease.

On September 19, 2002, radio sports commentator Neil Macrae provided his thoughts on recent remarks made by Philadelphia General Manager Bobby Clarke. Among other insults he directed at Clarke, Macrae said that “Clarke comes across as some freaked-out paranoid schizophrenic.” A listener complained that the word “schizophrenic” should not be used to insult someone with whom one disagrees, since it has a precise medical definition. He was concerned that using the word in this derogatory way leads to discrimination against persons actually suffering from mental illness.

The B.C. Panel applied the human rights clause of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics, which requires that broadcasters not air unduly discriminatory comment on the basis of, among other things, mental disability. Notwithstanding that provision, it stated that Macrae was entitled to express his disagreement with Clarke, even by using insulting phrases.

It did point out, though, that “[h]is commentary would no doubt have been just as forceful and effective without the addition of the one troubling word choice, 'schizophrenic'.” The Panel noted its concern “that this misuse of the term could contribute to the desensitization of the public with respect to the disease, on the one hand, and could bring discomfiture or possibly even a sense of shame to the afflicted, on the other hand.” In the end, however, it concluded that the word “attributed no negative characteristics to the disabled group.” To the contrary. “The sports commentator did not target the disabled group. He attributed to an individual outside that group some of the disabling characteristics of the group.” The Panel acknowledged that the word “has unfortunately come to be used as a colloquial insult, carrying a meaning interchangeable with […] 'weirdo' and other derogatory nouns, adjectives and characterizations,” not reaching the level of abusive comment under the human rights clause of the CAB Code of Ethics. It did finally express the hope “that sensitivity and taste will prevail so as to avoid its careless re-use in the future.”

Canada's private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide. In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970. More than 530 radio and television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab