Blasphemy Does Not Violate Broadcast Standards Unless It Is Hateful Says Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, August 21, 1998 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning The Comedy Network’s broadcast of a one-hour special by stand-up comedian Bill Maher on January 10, 1998. A viewer complained of the “blasphemous jokes” contained in the broadcast.

The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB). The Council first examined the question of blasphemy, concluding that

It may be that the Church has a strict and conservative view or definition of [”blasphemy”, “profane” and “irreverence”] but it is not such definitions which the CBSC considers applicable in defining broadcast standards. For that purpose, the Council begins, as always, with the principle that freedom of expression is the basis of broadcaster entitlements. Indeed, since the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is at the root of all Canadian speech.

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[T]he CBSC considers that blasphemy alone would not be sufficient to constitute a violation of the CAB Code of Ethics. It would need to be hateful, not merely irreverent, comment, abusively discriminatory, not merely impious or irreligious. At this point in the 20th century, the CBSC expects that comedians are entitled to question tradition and to tickle formal and possibly outdated values without finding themselves, for that reason alone, exceeding Canadian broadcast standards.

In the Council’s view, the stand-up act did not violate the human rights provision of this Code.

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

Canada’s private broadcasters have created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect their members will abide. They also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices created by the Radio Television News Directors Association Canada (RTNDA). More than 430 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 World Wide Web at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the National Chair of the CBSC, Ron Cohen, at (###) ###-####.