Toronto’s Symphony Orchestra dropped a pianist from their program. It was brought to their attention that Valentyna Lisitsa, a talented Ukrainian-born pianist, had been posting offensive tweets. She compared Ukrainian leaders to Nazis. Called Ukrainians dog feces. Juxtaposed photos of Ukrainian teachers wearing traditional embroidered shirts with Africans performing a dance with the comment: ‘teachers forced to wear Ukrainian tribal dress, a truly European custom :)” Posted a photo of pigs testicles painted blue and yellow and wrote “Here are the faces of the leaders.”
When she was removed from the TSO program, a social media campaign was launched. Canada’s most prestigious symphony orchestra was accused of censorship. And the story hit the headlines. I noticed it, but initially didn’t pay too much attention, because it was the end of term and my Easter was coming. But as a lover of classical music and media watcher I couldn’t but help follow the story.
Free speech was the topic of my last class on media and politics. My students debated the age old question of how and where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech. Is it acceptable to allow deliberately offensive statements and images in the public sphere? Who decides? And what criteria are used?
Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits hate propaganda in sections 318, 319, and 320 of the Criminal Code. But few cases have been brought to court, even fewer successfully prosecuted. And social media is still somewhat in a grey zone when it comes to legislation.
When asked about her offensive tweets on CBC radio, Lisitsa said, “It’s satirical. There’s great space for exaggeration and hyperbole.”
TSO president and CEO Jeff Melanson said that, “Free speech is important, but when it’s offensive and hurtful, that’s another matter.” They conducted an investigation into the tweets, and asked the pianist to explain. “She had originally led us to believe that these might be someone else’s words,” Melanson said in an interview, but later she confirmed that the words were indeed hers. “We did not go public with this story because we were trying to protect Valentina and her reputation. We are now going public because she basically forced the issue on us and now we are speaking to you.” And he released a full list of the tweets they investigated. (PDF Password: “MusicalToronto“)
They hired Toronto born pianist Stewart Goodyear to play the scheduled concert. But that got cancelled too, after what Goodyear described as ‘mob-like behaviour’ of Lisitsa’s supporters. “I was accused of supporting censorship, and bullied into declining this engagement,” he wrote on his FaceBook page.
Media coverage has been mixed. Some accuse the orchestra of censorship. Others, like the Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor wrote, ‘ “I’d expect to be fired if I used images of either Holocaust victims or African dancers in almost any satirical context.”
Even though the TSO asked Lisitsa not to perform, they honoured the contract from a financial perspective. They will pay her even, though she will not be playing.
When the TSO cancelled Lisitsa’s performance, she offered a free solo concert to a downtown Toronto church. The church opted out.