November 27, 2002
Reporter ban an issue of respect, not censorship, Speaker says
VICTORIA — The Speaker of the B.C. legislature says he doesn’t want to censor the media, but is demanding that a media outlet treat parliament and its officers with respect and decency.
After a controversial incident Monday caused the arrest of two journalists and riled others who believe the freedom of the press is at stake, Claude Richmond said Tuesday he will allow a reporter from an alternative Vancouver newspaper into the press gallery only if he agrees not to denigrate parliament.
“I want to see this place treated with some reverence and respect, but the last thing I’d want to do is curtail freedom of the press,” Richmond said in an interview.
The controversy began when two journalists from Vancouver’s TerminalCity weekly were jailed after a meeting with Richmond to discuss parliamentary respect soured. The men were arrested when they refused to leave Richmond’s office.
In a letter Richmond drafted Tuesday, he asks that TerminalCity be respectful of parliament, a requirement not demanded of other media.
“We are only interested in respect for the institution, which includes a minimal dress code and reporting that does not denigrate parliament or bring its officers into disrepute,” says Richmond’s letter to Terminal City editor Darren Atwater.
The Speaker’s job is to maintain order and decorum in the legislature and ensure the rules are enforced.
Atwater and gonzo columnist Brian (Godzilla) Salmi were arrested Monday, charged with obstruction of a peace officer, and jailed for failing to leave Richmond’s office.
Atwater was released from jail Monday afternoon, but Salmi, a self-described anarchist and former Rhino party candidate, spent the night in jail after refusing to sign a waiver saying he wouldn’t return to the legislature.
But Tuesday, Salmi was released from the cell and the charges were put in limbo. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Crown prosecutor Jonathan Ratel said the entire matter is being reviewed.
“All I can say is that the Crown is considering the entire matter,” Ratel said. The charges, he said, “are under review.”
Richmond and other legislature officers are annoyed about a satirical article Salmi wrote in 1994. In particular, the fictional article made references to deviant sexual acts made late at night by an officer of the legislature.
“All I’m getting at is that even reporters should have some respect for this institution, and decency,” Richmond said, acknowledging he may not have the legal power to ban specific reporters based on their writings. “I might seek legal advice.”
Donna Logan, of the University of B.C. School of Journalism, said it is inappropriate for the Speaker to insist the writings of journalists are respectful of parliament.
“It’s ridiculous. The speaker has gone overboard,” she said.
“For the speaker to set himself as judge and jury of which journalists can come in [to the legislature] is contrary to the democratic principles we believe in.”
While the freedom of the press is a basic principle in a free society, there are limits established by the courts, she said.
John Waterfield, manager of the National Press Gallery in Ottawa, was shocked that any parliament would attempt to direct what a journalist writes.
“What happened to freedom of the press?,” Waterfield asked. “I can’t believe any Speaker would say that.
“That’s never happened in the 25 years I have been here.”
New Democratic Party leader Joy MacPhail said Richmond has clearly overstepped his bounds.
“I’m unaware of any Speaker ever in the Commonwealth having the power to make a decision like that,” she said.
“I expect legislators and the media to be respectful of the rules and regulations that apply when we are in this legislature but we’re still allowed in Canada to have freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”
Salmi, 39, is well known in Vancouver’s alternative press. He often goes by the nickname Godzilla and may have legally changed his name to Satan.
Salmi, a self-described anarchist, has repeatedly sought office at all three levels of government. He ran in the 1996 federal election under the name Satan and spent 20 days in jail following the 1988 protest against logging at Clayoquot Sound.
In particular, he created numerous controversies in 1994: He caused a furore in Quebec when he launched a board game called Pin the Leg on the Separatist, referring to former premier Lucien Bouchard, who lost a leg to flesh-eating disease.
He encouraged hockey fans to “booze up and riot” following the Vancouver Canucks’ loss to the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals in 1994, which they did.
He created a stir in the legislative press gallery in Victoria when he wrote a fictitious account of drinking and snorting drugs with members of the press gallery.