Is Toronto Symphony Orchestra preventing freedom of speech?

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The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel performances by pianist Valentina Lisitsa has been publicly condemned by civil rights advocates who say her views are entirely unrelated to her employer.

Ukrainian-born Lisitsa regularly uses Twitter as a platform to voice her pro-Russian views on the civil-war currently raging in her home country but the TSO say many of her tweets cross the line into “intolerance.”

The orchestra’s president and CEO, Jeff Melanson said Lisitsa has been replaced due to "ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language.”

Canadian employers are well within their legal rights to discipline and even dismiss employees whose social media posts bring the business into bad repute.

“When there are public statements made or a public action is taken that clearly reflects poorly on the company or employer then employers do have the ability to exercise discipline,” employment lawyer Brian Wasyliv told HRM.

However, the move, which has sparked widespread controversy, has not gone down well with civil rights activists.

Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says Lisitsa’s views have no impact on her ability to do her job.

“It's hard to see the connection between what she said and what the duties of her job are and how it would affect it," she said.

"If the idea is just that the orchestra wants to avoid controversy, I don't find that a particularly compelling reason. The fact that maybe there would be some people protesting is, again, not a reason to let her go," she added.

Zwibel also voiced concerns over what this means for the relationship between employers and artists.

"I think there is a problem with the message that this sends to artists that they may have trouble getting jobs or keeping jobs if they express views that are unpopular or controversial," she said.

CEO Melanson has since defended his controversial decision and said; “As one of Canada's most important cultural institutions, our priority must remain on being a stage for the world's great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive.”

Do you think TSO has the right to cancel Lisitsa’s performances because of her political insensitivity? Share your thoughts below.  

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  • Jean Fraser on 2015-04-09 2:15:49 PM

    Yes they had the right to cancel her performances.
    Freedom of speech is important, but one is not allowed to harm another person. Calling people an excrement crosses the line, is hurtful and offensive. No I am not Ukranian, but I was offended. I have no interest in seeing her performance, and in fact, would not go based on that fact.

    An employer is perfectly without their rights, to cancel a performance by a performer who has been viewed as offensive. Whether we like it or not, our behaviour and words can impact our employer.

  • Joanne on 2015-04-09 4:08:10 PM

    I have not seen nor heard of her comments so cannot comment on them. Yes, we are entitled to free speech but not to offensive speech that could offend the clients (patrons) of the Toronto Symphony (her employer) or the other orchestra members. Her views are her own but not if they affect or are detrimental to her coworkers or her employer. What if someone came to a concert that did not agree with her views and caused a disturbance that would affect how everyone else did their job and the Toronto Symphony could end up with some very negative publicity. If she voices her views without being identified as a member of the Toronto Symphony then she should be free to voice her views, BUT once identified as a Toronto Symphony member she should curtail the offensive language. This to me would apply to any employee, you have to be mindful of how you affect your employer's business.

  • jeffrey on 2015-04-10 8:28:39 AM

    Has anyone considered what sort of hate-mongering she may have decided to engaged in during her performance when given the platform of a stage with perhaps a microphone and an audience???? Offensive slogans on her clothing, a speech full of offensive remarks.......and how do you stop it when it's happening "live". If you choose to be an activist as well as a pianist I believe you have to accept that espousing your views will make you dear to the hearts of those who share them and persona non grata to some others. Perhaps the Peoples Republic of Donetsk is looking to start a symphony and would welcome her. Lots of lovely beaches she could enjoy in Crimea as well.

  • Natalie on 2015-04-13 9:49:23 AM

    Weaved throughout Ms. Lisitsa's Twitter feed are numerous examples of her deeply offensive comments aimed primarily against Ukrainians but also targeting Jews, Poles, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities. Ms. Lisitsa refers in her social media posts to Ukrainians as "ukropy" (an extremely derogatory ethnic slur against Ukrainians), dog feces and Nazis, and she makes false and spurious allegations that Ukrainians are setting up filtration camps and preparing gas chambers for Russians. These statements fuel Russia's propaganda machine and serve to provoke ethnic hostilities.

    Over the past year Ms. Lisitsa has written many insulting barbs, including a reference to African and Ukrainian traditional clothing as "tribal dress"; made insensitive remarks to Garry Kasparov "that his adorable western democracies enthusiastically deported his [Jewish] people to gas chambers"; and mocked people with Down Syndrome. Reprehensible comments intended to cause interethnic hostilities are predicated on a foundation of animosity and intolerance. Individuals who proudly expound bigoted remarks should not be welcome to perform in Canada's venerable cultural institutions that unite people of all nationalities, religions and ethnicities.

    Just as the National Basketball Association was justified in banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life over racist comments, so too is the TSO justified in cancelling Ms. Lisitsa's performances. In fact, all other performing arts centers should follow its leadership. There should be zero tolerance by arts, sports or other organizations and institutions that serve the public to support performers who make prejudicial remarks or propagate deeply offensive speech targeting people because of their ethnicity.

    The magnificent power and beauty inherent in music is that it unites people – people of all walks of life, all nationalities, all religions, all abilities and all ethnicities. It is in this spirit that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has delivered a message of human accord and harmony to countless audiences. Ms. Lisitsa's repugnant comments are divisive and intolerant, and are an affront to our national ethos of respect for all races, religions and cultures.

  • Bonnie Reid on 2015-04-16 11:58:44 AM

    I was advised that she was paid; and did not have to perform. The TSO has footed the bill on this one; and I am pround that they did so. She did not lose out financially, and she is still performing in other areas of Canada. Toronto is a rich and diverse city, why should they entertain such derogatory and racist comments? I would not want to go and see her performance, and many of their members stated the same. She can continue to make her comments; no one is stopping her freedom of speech or her tweets. Some people can choose to associate or not, and not associating is a wise choice for Toronto.... Well done.

  • Mery on 2015-04-09 6:49:32 PM

    I wonder if this situation would have best been handled by going ahead with her concerts, then make a decision whether to hire her again or not. The people who were offended could boycott the performances, then be assured they wouldn't happen again.

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