Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, Number/Numéro 15 (September 1998)

A Canadian Right to Communicate?(1)

William F. Birdsall (2)

Access to government information is inextricably linked to the broader concept of universal access to information. Furthermore, the policy issue of universal access is increasingly synonymous with the formulation of government telecommunications policy. The federal government has grasped the construction of an information highway as the engine of economic, cultural, and social development. It advocates private sector construction of the information highway and provision of services. The government itself is shifting more of its distribution of information to electronic formats and implementing revenue generating charges for information, both initiatives that subvert universal access to information.

Librarians, public interest advocates, and the government's own Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) have urged the government to develop a national universal access strategy. (3) The government has not responded to these calls for action. To counter private sector pressures on the government and government's reluctance to take action, a new political strategy is required.

In this essay I argue that the debate over universal access is focused on too narrow a concept. Furthermore, the process of the debate is limited to policy planning and legalistic regulatory processes that exclude any real public participation. These processes are dominated by special interest groups, the most powerful of which are telecommunications corporations and their industry associations. In contrast, public interest groups are weak and lack both any broad public mandate and substantial resources. As an alternative, I propose that the exclusive discussion of a narrowly conceived concept of universal access be opened up to a consideration of a broader concept, the right to communicate. Further, I suggest that an initiative to incorporate the right to communicate into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would provide a political, as opposed to a legal, process for considering not only universal access, but important related issues of freedom of information, access to government information, cultural policy, language rights, and other issues central to government information policy.

In making my case I will examine, admittedly with excessive brevity, government telecommunications policy and policy-making processes over the past twenty-five years and the development of the concept of the right to communicate. While the terms "convergence" of computing and telecommunications and "information highway" were coined in the early 1990s, the concept of an electronic network has been studied incessantly by the Canadian government for a quarter of a century. This policy quest was initially triggered by the Canadian government's concern about American dominance in satellite development, not the emerging use of computers. It was also the emergence of satellite technology that gave birth to the idea of a right to communicate.



When the Soviet Union shot Sputnik into space in 1957, the United States soon responded with its own satellite program. This initiative alerted Canada that it had to assert its own interests in this new technology. Satellites had tremendous transmission and networking potential for spanning the great distances and connecting the remote communities characteristic of a Canada concerned about national identity and sovereignty. Satellites were considered so revolutionary Marshall McLuhan was inspired to coin his famous conception of the "global village." Canada moved quickly and followed the Soviets and the U. S. into space with its own satellite in 1962.

The government increased its commitment to communications through the creation of a Department of Communications in 1969. As well, government communications policy was shifting from one of concentrating on regulation of telephony to using telecommunications to address policy objectives directed at cultural identity, national sovereignty, and economic development. While government's focus on satellite communication was only a prelude to its more extensive exploration of the connection between computing and telecommunications, satellite technology defined the policy questions that continue to puzzle policy makers to this day, including accessibility. The right to communicate would emerge as one policy response to the challenges raised by satellite communication.


Computing and Telecommunications

The new Department of Communications (DOC) was eager to take an activist role in telecommunications planning. In addition to the satellite developments, there was growing awareness of the potential of linking telecommunications and computing. Because of the growing need to transmit data between computers there was concern within government and the computer industry that the telephone companies would dominate access to computing. Eric Kierans, the Department's first Minister, formed a "Telecommission" chaired by Deputy Minister Allan Gotlieb. This task force of senior government officials was to undertake a comprehensive study of the current state and future prospects of telecommunications in Canada. Its 256 page report, Instant World, was the first government report to extensively examine the potential "wedding" of computing and telecommunications. (4)

The Telecommission grasped the import of combining telecommunications and computing with the digitization of information to create an electronic network. It recognized that the increasing availability of information over sophisticated telecommunications networks raised new issues about universal access. In response, the Telecommssion called upon the concept of an individual's "right to communicate." It affirmed that freedom of knowledge and freedom of information are the most valued rights in a democratic society. The Telecommission asserted that the combinations of the right to hear and to be heard, to inform others and to be informed, are essential elements of a right to communicate. While this right was not embodied in legislation, the Telecommission declared that every citizen should possess this right regardless where she or he lives. Where did this idea of a right to communicate come from?


Origin of the Right to Communicate

The father of the idea of the right to communicate is Jean D'Arcy. We noted that the federal government became more intensely interested in communications policy with the launching of the satellites in the 1960s. D'Arcy, Director of Radio and Visual Services in the UN Office of Public Information, responded to developments in satellite technology as well with an article in 1969 on "Direct broadcast satellites and the right to communicate." (5) Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, stipulates that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Article 19 was crafted out of the post-war concern for the free flow of information, primarily through the mass media. It was D'Arcy's insight to see that Article 19 was too narrow due to recent technological developments. In the opening sentence of his essay he asserted:

The time will come when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will have to encompass a more extensive right than man's right to information, first laid down twenty-one years ago in Article 19. This is the right of man to communicate." (6)

D'Arcy recognized that broadcasting, computing, and telecommunications technologies were going to be increasingly inter-related. As a result, there would be an abundance of modes of communication available to the individual in contrast to previous scarcity. The new technologies would put two-way communication in the hands of the individual. Communications would no longer be confined to the elite as more people acquired the means to participate in communication processes.

D'Arcy did not actually provide a definition of what he meant by the right to communicate. However, the significance of his insight was quickly recognized by others, including the members of the Telecommission. Henry Hindley, the Executive Secretary for the Telecommission, acknowledged that D'Arcy's paper had impressed the Telecommission. As for those involved in the efforts to define a right to communicate, the Telecommission report was seen, after D'Arcy's article, as the next significant milestone to grapple with the meaning of the right to communicate. D'Arcy himself referred to Instant World in his subsequent writings.

However, while efforts would continue at the international level to formulate a right to communicate, Canadian policy makers did not follow-up on the bold assertions of the Telecommission. According to Hindley, "resounding declarations" had to give way to "practical limitations." (7) Resounding declarations raise the spectre of participatory planning and political activism. This was not the mode of planning adopted by the Canadian government as it continued its quest to develop a telecommunications policy that could keep pace with technological developments.


Government Telecommunications Policy Processes, 1970s-1990s

Over the next three decades numerous reports on telecommunications policy were released by the government. The Telecommission noted that one of the most critical issues facing telecommunications policy makers was "who is to decide what society wants?" (8) The Telecommission's own consultative process involved a cast of hundreds; nonetheless, it was overwhelmingly dominated by industry, government, and academic experts. While it held no public hearings itself, the Telecommission's report called for wide consultation on ascertaining the social impact of telecommunications and information systems.

Despite this call for wide public participation, the Telecommission's reliance on government, academic, and industry experts became the standard operating procedure. In 1972, a DOC's Canadian Computer Communication Task Force issued a report, Branching Out, that relied on submissions from industry, meetings with senior business executives, and visits to major institutional users of telecommunications and computing services. (9) Again, no public hearings were held.

In 1979, there was another report on Telecommunications and Canada. The committee generating this report claimed it was not given the time to hold public hearings. Like earlier groups, it relied on briefs and meetings involving government and industry. They met with twenty-two delegations. However, with the exception of the Consumers Association of Canada, all these groups were federal and provincial government agencies, industry corporations and associations, and unions. Written submissions to the committee were overwhelmingly from industry sources. Ironically, like the Telecommission, this group also advocated wider participation. It called upon the government to undertake a campaign to increase public awareness of the social, economic, and cultural implications of the electronic information society. It observed that "Without a much wider appreciation of the fundamental nature of the changes now taking place it is unlikely that effective mechanisms for considering the issues will be developed, let alone the implementation of appropriate solutions." (10)

Regardless of these continual urgings to broaden public inclusion in telecommunications issues, the government continued the practice of exclusive consultation. When the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) was established in 1994 the majority of its twenty-nine members were senior executives from the telecommunications industry. Like the Telecommision years before, IHAC established an elaborate structure of working groups and task forces to examine various issues, including access. While this structure implies wide consultation, the participants followed the usual pattern of being confined to predominately government, industry, and external experts selected by government.

Public interest groups attempted to get IHAC to hold public hearings. However, the government sidelined this idea over to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). By doing so the government shifted any public input to a very formal and legalistic process. Karen Adams illustrates this point with her description of her experience as Canadian Library Association (CLA) Executive Director with a CRTC hearing. Adams enumerates four lessons she learned about CRTC hearings.

The first lesson was that CRTC hearings generate paper, because each document must be copied to all other participants....The sheer volume of the paper was overwhelming to the lay reader. The second lesson, regarding the need to understand not just a legal process but also what is essentially a foreign language, indicated why public participation in such hearings is limited to only the most committed people. If the public does not speak the language, it cannot participate. The third lesson, also about language, was that the telecommunications companies have appropriated the library community's phrasing, and they too use words like ‘universal and affordable access.' However, the telephone companies mean something quite different from what librarians intend when they say that phrase. The fourth lesson was the importance of working in loose coalition with other groups; this is how the consumer groups generally approach CRTC hearings. Because there are so few consumer groups involved with the CRTC, it is important that they not contradict each other and that they share expertise whenever possible. (11)

Adams provides a vivid description of a legalistic process, dominated by special interest groups, that provides little if any encouragement for participation by the average citizen.

Despite these constraints, when the CRTC undertook its information highway proceedings, it received over 1,000 written submissions and had seventy-eight parties attend oral hearings. There was obviously wide spread interest in this issue. However, through this formal process IHAC received its only public input filtered through the CRTC, whose commitment to the free market orientation of the government insured there would no substantive challenges to the industry orientation of IHAC. (12)

We see that government has consistently followed policy making strategies with a bias toward industry policy players over the public. When it allowed public input it was channeled into the legalistic hearing processes of the CRTC. In addition to this process problem, there has been over the past twenty-five years the evolution of a political mind set that encourages political passivity. What I call the ideology of information technology has become the pervasive world view of politicians and policy makers. (13)


Ideology of Information Technology

The ideology of information technology is an amalgamation of technological determinism, free market economic values, and neo-liberal conservative politics. It envisions a minimal public policy role for government in the context of a global economy. Instead, we are expected to adapt to the "invisible hand" of the market and the inevitability of the technological imperative. The role of the nation state as an elected expression of the will of the people is replaced by that of the dynamics of information technology and of the market. The ideology challenges traditional concepts of what have previously been considered public goods, such as government information. Instead, the ideology favors deregulation and privatization of public services. Not surprisingly, this privatization includes the commodification of information, including government information. Accessibility of public goods should be resolved through the mechanisms of the market. The citizen is turned into a consumer.

The ideology of information technology encourages a fatalism that promotes political passivity. This fatalism resides in the view that we are being swept along by an irresistible technological imperative. This technological determinism is reinforced by the view that cultural, social, and economic issues should be resolved by the inevitable laws of the market. Government and large corporations attribute their inability to respond to national and local needs to these supposedly uncontrollable forces of globalization. These assumptions are all open to challenge but that cannot be done here. The point is that this world view held by politicians and policy planners sees citizens as politically passive mass consumers. Within this perspective, the government's particular conception of universal access is forged.


National Access Strategy

Acknowledging the long-standing commitment to universal access in telephony, IHAC called for an access policy that would allow Canadians to exercise their democratic rights on the information highway in order to avoid classes of information "haves" and "haves nots." However, IHAC itself was unable to agree on what would constitute essential telecommunications services to meet this objective. It recommended that the federal government establish yet another advisory group to develop a national access strategy. Although the government, in its response to IHAC's recommendations, committed the ministers of Industry and Canadian Heritage to developing by 1997, a national strategy for access to essential services has not yet been formulated. Instead, government policy continues to pursue a policy of "connecting Canadians". (14)

While the policy of connectedness implies a commitment to universal access, it is in reality one of getting as many people as possible hooked up to the Internet in order to create a critical mass of consumers to sustain the private development of the information highway. In short, the government adheres to an ideological commitment of converting citizens into consumers for the benefit of the private sector. IHAC itself emphasized that the need for the government to increase access as "a precondition for producing a healthy consumer market for commercial products and services and for sustaining the viability of a business environment on the Internet." (15) For those in the private sector who would be concerned about government intervention through such programs as SchoolNet, Library Net, and the Community Access Program (CAP), IHAC calmed their fears by noting that making connections to the Internet "provide the least distortion to the Internet marketplace...if anything, they stimulate the market by whetting the public for full Internet access..." (16)

Like earlier government bodies, IHAC espoused the need for greater participation in policy processes. It acknowledged that access to information and to telecommunications facilities are so important that it is necessary to seek viewpoints beyond the government and the usual participants at CRTC hearings. However, there is no reason to believe the current government will be any more responsive to such urgings than its predecessors were over the past thirty years. Meanwhile the government's narrow focus on connecting Canadians ignores a whole range of cultural, social, and educational issues that are intricately related to access. These issues include government publication policies, print and computer literacy, intellectual property, language rights, cultural identity, and intellectual freedom. The government addresses some of these issues in various fora but it is not done within a coherent policy framework.

To this point I have argued that telecommunications policy making has been an exclusive process largely confined to government, industry, and various experts. Any opportunity for public participation is channeled into legalistic processes dominated by special interest groups, the most powerful of which are from the telecommunications industry itself. Government policy reflects an ideology of information technology that calls for the privatization of information services and revenue generation within government. Universal access is narrowly perceived as connecting Canadians to the Internet in order to create a mass consumption market. This narrow model of universal access is pursued without reference to contingent issues such as literacy, government information policy, and so forth.

How can the exclusive discussion of a narrowly conceived concept of universal access be opened up both conceptually and in terms of public participation? I propose that an initiative to incorporate the right to communicate into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would provide a political, as opposed to legal, process for considering not only universal access, but important related issues of freedom of information, and so forth.


Right to Communicate

What would a right to communicate look like? While efforts continue to formulate such a right, reaching a consensus on a specific definition has been difficult. Efforts to define a right to communicate have been confined to the international level. Unesco in particular brought working groups together into the early 1980s in an effort to construct a definition of the right to communicate. These efforts foundered on east/west and north/south ideological differences. As Unesco withdrew its support for a right to communicate initiative, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the World Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), continue the quest to develop rights and charter statements. An active Canadian based group explores the right to communicate on the Internet (see listserv UA-L@CCEN.UCCB.NS.CA).

It is not my purpose to advocate a specific definition of a right to communicate. That, indeed, is part of the debate that must take place. However, there is a rich body of literature generated by those who have attempted to achieve a definition that provides a sense of what such a right could encompass. (17) Here I will only give some indication of the texture of the efforts to define a right to communicate.

The key elements of the new thinking about communications that challenged the established concepts of freedom of information are interaction, access, and participation. Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson, two early advocates of the right, observe that "The right to communicate is a complex and evolving concept but can simply be put as: ‘Everyone has the right to communicate.'" For them the right includes "at least the right to inform and be informed, the right of active participation in the communication process, the right of equitable access to communication resources and information, and the right of cultural and individual privacy from communication." The right is "premised on the shift in communication from a one-way, vertical system to a multiway, horizontal system with high levels of participation on individual and community terms...." Furthermore, "A key philosophical shift is that people have a right to communication resources necessary to their communication needs--that communication means beyond the interpersonal level should be equitably shared and not controlled by wealthy powerful groups, individuals, or nations." (18)

A challenge to defining a right to communicate is to insure that it is not either a meaningless generality or so encompassing and complex that it collapses from its own weight. To meet this problem one of its most forceful advocates, Desmond Fisher, proposes adopting an hierarchical conceptual framework that distinguishes between rights, freedoms, and entitlements. The right to communicate, then, is conceived as an inner core of related and interconnected freedoms. These freedoms would include freedom of opinion, of expression, and of information. The right to communicate becomes a basic right exercised through a secondary set of freedoms. These freedoms in turn are translated into practice through such entitlements as "freedom of the press, the absence of censorship, the independence of broadcasting the right of journalists to protect their sources, the right to access to information and so on." (19) According to Fisher, within this hierarchy of rights, freedoms, and entitlements the responsibility of the state is to recognize the right to communicate and to create "the conditions under which the practical freedoms and entitlements which derive from the right itself can be implemented." (20) These responsibilities are not only legislative but include as well the provision of the financial and technical resources that allow citizens to exercise their right to communicate.


Why a Right to Communicate in Canada?

I contend that the right to communicate meets Canada's need to move beyond the narrow consideration of universal access. The right to communicate provides a broad conceptual framework within which Canadians can address not only access to information in the broadest sense but also the related issues of intellectual freedom, language rights, intellectual property rights, cultural identity, and technological planning, all issues relevant to the Canadian context. The right to communicate is not a "resounding declaration" as characterized by the Telecommission's secretary but, as noted by the international communication consultant Henry Cassirer, a practical task of turning modern communication media into genuine modes of communication. His eloquent but pragmatic characterization of the challenge in the closing years of the 1970s is even more pertinent today:

This task derives not from any dogmatic or idealistic preoccupation with communication, but from awareness that a society that is incapable of open communication is unable to come to grips with its basic problems and to cope with the chang es that impose themselves. The wisdom of genuine democratic participation and decision making, of relying on the knowledge, the aspirations, and the initiatives of the people and not only on the political will and the expertise of the authorities, lies in the realization that this is the least harmful and frustrating way of peacefully resolving the inevitable conflicts that shake society and herald change. (21)

It is now time to build on the foresight demonstrated by the Telecommission and to undertake the debate inherent in the complex concept of the right to communicate. But this time the "wisdom of genuine democratic participation and decision making, of relying on the knowledge, the aspirations, and the initiatives of the people" cannot be passed over to "the political will and the expertise of the authorities." Canadians are eminently qualified to undertake such a debate. That they have a sophisticated awareness of communications is demonstrated in many ways. They are well aware that modes of communication, beginning with the railroad and the telegraph, have played a central role in national political, economic, and cultural development. The contribution to understanding communication issues by Canadians such Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Dallas Smythe, and their many heirs is testimony to the importance of communications in the Canadian imagination. As we noted earlier, Canada was the first country to recognize the important implications of the right to communicate with the Telecommission's report, Instant World.

Canadians are also experienced in drafting and legislating rights legislation. The principal author of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 19 is a part, was the Canadian John Peters Humphrey, first director of the UN Human Rights Division. And in 1982, Canada legislated its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

An initiative to incorporate the right to communicate into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would provide a political process for widespread debate of all the aspects of universal access and related issues. It is appropriate to focus on the Charter not only because the issue of universal access is one of human rights. Amendments to the Charter must be passed by both the federal House and Senate as well as receiving the consent of seven provinces with at least half the total population of all the provinces. In short, the right to communicate would be subject to extensive political debate at both the provincial and national levels.

The Charter currently includes "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." However, this right reflects the traditional one-way media communication orientation that D'Arcy identified as outmoded three decades ago. At that time, senior Canadian government officials recognized the importance of the right to communicate. It is now time for all Canadians to have the opportunity to debate its merits.


[1] May be cited as/On peut citer comme suit:

William F. Birdsall. "A Canadian Right to Communicate?" Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada No. 15 (September 1998). []
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William F. Birdsall
Executive Director
Novanet, Inc.
6080 Young St. #601
phone/fax (902) 453-2461; 453-2369
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[3] Brian Campbell, "The Politics of Universal Access," Understanding Telecommunications and Public Policy: A Guide for Libraries, ed. Karen Adams and William F. Birdsall (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association and Dalhousie School of Library and Information Studies, 1998) (forthcoming).
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[4] Telecommission, Instant World (Ottawa: Information Canada, 1971).
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[5] Jean D'Arcy, "Direct Broadcast Satellites and the Right to Communicate," Right to Communicate: Collected Papers, ed. L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977), 1-9. Originally published in EBU Review 118 (1969): 14-18.
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[6] Ibid., 1.
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[7] L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie, "The Emergence of the Right to Communicate: 1970-1975," Right to Communicate: Collected Papers, ed. L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977), 114-115.
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[8] Telecommision, 23.
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[9] Canadian Computer/Communications Task Force, Branching Out 2 vols. (Ottawa: Department of Communications, 1972).
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[10] Consultative Committee on the Implications of Telecommunications for Canadian Sovereignty, Telecommunications and Canada (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1979), 65.
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[11] Karen Adams, "Conflicting Values: Librarianship, Public Policy and Telecommunications," Understanding Telecommunications and Public Policy: a Guide for Libraries, ed. Karen Adams and William F. Birdsall (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association and Dalhousie School of Library and Information Studies, 1998). (forthcoming)
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[12] Stephen D. McDowell and Cheryl Cowan Buchwald, "Public Interest Groups and the Canadian Information Highway," Telecommunications Policy 21.8 (1997): 709-719.
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[13] William F. Birdsall, "The Internet and the Ideology of Information Technology," INET 96 Proceedings (, 1996); and William F. Birdsall, "The Ideology of Information Technology," Queens Quarterly 104 (1997): 287-299.
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[14] Information Highway Advisory Council, Connections, Community, Content: The Challenge of the Information Highway (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services, 1995); Information Highway Advisory Council, Building the Information Society: Moving Canada into the 21st Century (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1996); Information Highway Advisory Council, Preparing Canada for a Digital World (Ottawa: Industry Canada, 1997).
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[15] Information Highway Advisory Council, 1997, 40.
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[16] Ibid., 50.
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[17] Desmond Fisher, The Right to Communicate: A Status Report (Paris: Unesco, 1982).
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[18] Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson, "Policy Context for News and a 'New Order'," Crisis in International News: Policies and Prospects, ed. Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981) 26-7.
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[19] Fisher, 22.
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[20] Ibid., 28.
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[21] Henry R. Cassirer, "It's a Long Way to Communication," Evolving Perspectives on the Right to Communicate, ed. Jim Richstad and L. S. Harms (Honolulu: East-West Communications Institute, 1977), 56.
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