The Toronto Sun
December 19, 1996

The perception of freedom of speech

by Christie Blatchford

Ossie Luce is happy, and for that, I suppose, so should we all be happy.

The 77-year-old veteran, who spent almost four years of his youth in Japanese prison camps during World War II, got a personal phone call from Transportation Minister Al Palladini yesterday in which Palladini apologized for the way his bureaucrats had handled the matter of Luce's "offensive" licence plate.

It reads "JAP POW", because that's what Luce was and that was the experience which altered his life and, I'm sure, in some large measure, determined the course of it.

But Luce recently received a letter from the transportation ministry, the same ministry which 11 years ago issued him the plate without a peep, telling him it could be offensive, "particularly to members of the Japanese community", and asking him to "voluntarily surrender" it.

His office deluged with calls on the heels of The Toronto Sun story yesterday, the callers apparently about evenly split on the issue of whether Luce should be able to keep the plate, Palladini offered Luce a new one -- it will read "JPN POW" -- free of charge and pledged to try to have it delivered to Luce's Thorold home before Christmas. Luce, who is a sweetie, was frankly delighted.

"I feel a lot better", he said.

"So you're happy with this?" I asked.

"Well", said his wife, Ida, who was on the other phone, "we can't do much more, can we? We either take it or we lose the plate."

Politically, it was a clever solution, though its success depended entirely, as Palladini acknowledged yesterday, on Luce's goodwill. "We compromised", Palladini said, then added honestly, "Well, he compromised."

For the record, both JAP, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1880, and JPN, which is the more modern version, are acceptable abbreviations for Japan or Japanese. It is, as New Democrat Peter Kormos said yesterday, like using BRIT as shorthand for British. In other words, JAP and JPN say essentially the same thing, though most people, I'd guess, instantly would know what the former meant, but would be less sure about the latter.

Had Os Luce not graciously agreed to Palladini's suggestion, either he would have had to turn the original plate in or it would have been cancelled. There's no doubt of that. "It's offensive", Palladini said yesterday. "There's no two ways about it ... It should not have been approved. I'm disappointed this ministry ever approved it."

Palladini said he personally objects to the word JAP. "Because I believe it is a slang", he said. "To call someone a JAP is demeaning. It would be like someone calling me a WOP." He agreed that this likely wasn't Luce's intention (though even if it was, frankly, I would argue that anyone subjected to the torture and humiliation of those prison camps is entitled to refer to his captors in any language he chooses) and said, "I would never accuse Mr. Luce of that." But, Palladini said, "It's the perception, and we all know that sometimes perception can do more damage than the reality. It is a sensitive issue."

He also said Luce, after having the plate for more than a decade, shouldn't have been sent a form letter, but been phoned, as he, Palladini, did. Note, please, the minister's concern for style (the way the message was delivered) over substance (the message itself).

What has happened here is that Palladini has arrived at a political solution for a problem which existed only in one complainant's mind and in the minds of the transportation bureaucrats who immediately kneeled before the complainant.

What is this nonsense about Luce's plate perhaps offending the Japanese community? What Japanese community? There's a Japanese-Canadian community in this country, certainly, but what has it to do with what the Japanese did to men like Luce in their prison camps 50 years ago?

Before Luce heard from Palladini yesterday, he had composed a articulate, respectful letter to Premier Mike Harris. I've got a copy. The letter begins, and ends, with Luce's concern about whether "Ontario war veterans (are) about to lose their freedom of speech."

The answer, I would argue, is yes. Freedom of speech is about speaking without fear, and that includes censoring oneself for fear of giving offence. Freedom of speech is about speaking the Queen's English, bluntly; it is not about delicacy or euphemism. Oswald Luce didn't put JAP POW on his licence plate, as Peter Kormos said yesterday, because he's a punk trying to offend, but because he's a member of "a very special fraternity. Any reasonable person, having heard what Mr. Luce had to say, would reply, 'God bless.' "

It strikes me that what we have at Queen's Park right now is the worst of both worlds -- the hard-heartedness of the small-minded Tory and the soft-headedness of the politically correct wussies who went before them. And, as always with governments, the political decision is the farthest thing in the world from the moral, or brave, one.

Copyright © 1996 by the Toronto Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.