Postal workers deliver a moral conundrum

The refusal recently by Vancouver letter carriers to deliver an anti-homosexual pamphlet highlights censorship's double-edged sword

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the director of the freedom of expression project with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the postal workers’s refusal to deliver the contentious piece of mail was undoubtedly influenced by Canada’s own legislation regarding expressions of hate – legislation that is more and more becoming a double edged sword.

“I think the problem stems from the legislation we have about hate because it’s led to the stifling of a lot of things that need to be heard,” Aviv said. “There was an Iraqi film that was detained by Canada Customs because it contained anti-American statements and that was deemed as hatred against Americans.”

Aviv’s comments were made in regards to an unaddressed 28-page pamphlet entitled, “Homosexuality: The Plague of the 21st Century.” In its pages the pamphlet apparently blamed homosexuality for the spread of AIDS and likened gays and lesbians to rats and fleas. It was produced by a Baptist ministry located in Ontario.

The piece of mail was to be delivered as part of one Vancouver-area postal worker’s route on Oct. 25, but he refused on the grounds that it was hate mail. The other letter carriers employed at the depot in question also made it clear that they would not deliver the item, either.

After a brief 15-minute work stoppage, it was decided that the letter carriers would not have to deliver the pamphlet. It was, instead, delivered by Canada Post supervisors a few days later.

Aviv says that although she finds the pamphlet’s subject matter distasteful and she disagrees with its message, it is not up to the employees of Canada Post to decide what is acceptable for delivery.

Hate legislation run amok

She also cited another example of Canada’s hate legislation run amok, as a South African film about the apartheid was apparently in danger of being censored for fear that it would create hatred towards white South Africans.

“Now we have letter carriers standing up to decide what should be delivered,” she said. “Again this is less about Canada Post and more about letter carriers deciding what should and should not be delivered; it’s very unfortunate.”

The reaction amongst the gay and lesbian community seemed more akin to disappointment than shock and outrage. Robert Hudler, organizer of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, was certainly troubled by the situation, but not upset.

“I did hear about it in some of the news and it is a concern,” Hudler said. “With something like this you think they’d have some sort of guidelines in place.”

National president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Deborah Bourque, asserts that Canada Post does indeed have guidelines that are determined by the criminal code of Canada.

‘Mail is not mailable when…’

“Actually Canada Post has regulations and they say that mail is considered non-mailable if it is in contravention of an act or regulation of Canada,” Bourque said.

“For example if it fell under the definition of hate crimes under the criminal code, the Canada Post guide also says that mail is not mailable when it is prohibited by law which includes pieces that are illegal, obscene or fraudulent.”

Bourque also said that she has written letter to Moira Green, president of Canada Post Corporation, asking for a meeting to discuss the issue. She says she really doesn’t know why Canada Post decided to insist upon the delivery of the specific piece of mail.

Regardless, Bourque says that, while she understands the concerns regarding censorship, the messages have been mostly positive.

“We understand that censorship is a really controversial subject, but we’re really encouraged that our members understand the issue of homophobia enough that they saw this for what it was,” Bourque said. “There’s been tremendous support.”

Bourque also feels that Canada Post put their employees in an awkward position and she looks forward to dealing with the management on the issue in the near future. Canada Post and CUPW are currently in the process of negotiating a new labour contract.

“It shouldn’t have to be their call and Canada Post should have never accepted that for delivery,” she said. “I’m hopeful we can sit down with Canada Post and persuade them to come up with some policies and standards about what is and is not appropriate for delivery by their employees and we’re certainly going to do what we can to make sure that happens.”

Spokesperson for Canada Post, Colleen Frick, defended Canada Post’s decision to have supervisors go ahead with the delivery of the pamphlet, because Canada Post is not mandated to discern what is or isn’t hate mail.

‘It’s not one of our criteria we look at’

“We don’t look at hate mail and if we did we would be censoring the mail,” Frick said. “It’s not something that falls under the Canada Post act and it’s not one of our criteria that we look at.”

Frick also says that the employee initially charged with delivering the pamphlet was willing to do it, but changed his mind after being pressured by other employees.

“The original letter carrier who looks after that route didn’t initially refuse,” she said. “He was perfectly willing to do it, but he received pressure from the union to not deliver that piece of literature.”

According to Frick, Canada Post has some guidelines for what is and what is not deliverable mail. Most of the guidelines, however, deal with sizing and the display of explicit sexual images, not written content. She says they simply have no choice, but to deliver the mail.

“I want to make it clear that it’s not our place to censor the mail; we can’t break the law,” Frick said. “It’s really not up to us to decide if the message is correct because we are just the delivery agent and I guess the question you really need to ask is do you really want postal workers to pick or choose what mail Canadians can receive?”

Hudler said, while he and CLGRO oppose censorship, the issue extends beyond the matter and deals more with how the message is presented. He says he has no problem if people voice their opinions on homosexuality or any other issue as long as it is clearly identified as opinion.

“As a rule I am not in favour of censorship,” Hudler said. “When it becomes a big problem is when something like that (pamphlet) is stated as a fact or stated as some sort of empirical truth.”

Filed from The Centre for Creative Communications