There is an issue irking online petitioners regarding the presence of anti-abortion advertisements on Guelph Transit buses.
A petition on change.org with more than 2,000 signatures is calling on Guelph Transit to remove them.
A quick search of the issue reveals that citizens have posed complaints to their councillors on this issue before.
The response on the blogs of Ward 2 and Ward 4 notes that: “The City of Guelph does not endorse any businesses or associations who advertise on transit buses, shelters or benches … All advertisements that could be in violation of Guelph Transit’s advertising policy are reviewed … and are approved or denied based on the policy. The current Guelph and Area Right to Life advertisement does not contravene our advertising policy and although the advertisement may be considered controversial in nature, refusing to post the advertisement could be seen as limiting freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
This response is correct, but it should read “refusing to post the advertisement would be seen as limiting freedom of expression under the charter.”
The landmark case in this area, Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority vs. Canadian Federation of Students — British Columbia Component (2009), is very similar.
TransLink (the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority) refused to post political advertisements of the Canadian Federation of Students-B.C. and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation in 2004. The respondents argued that this violated their freedom of expression, protected by section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The charteronly applies to government interaction. It would not apply, for example, to someone who feels their rights are violated by a private business.
The Supreme Court of Canada first examined whether or not the regulations of a transit body, which is not always directly controlled by government, counts as government action under the charter. The majority found that it did, since it was “substantially controlled” by a government entity. The Guelph Transit advertising policy would similarly fall under the charter.
The Canadian Federation of Students-B.C. placed advertisements encouraging students to vote in the next election, while those of the teachers’ union bemoaned the closure of public schools and cuts to teachers’ wages. TransLink had policies that prevented advertisements that were likely “to cause offence,” “create controversy,” or “which advocates or opposes any ideology political philosophy, point of view, policy or action.”
It is crucial to note that the unions were not requesting government support, but the freedom to express themselves. Bus advertisements are accessible to anyone who wishes to advertise and is willing to pay a fee, according to the majority in the TransLink case.
The majority ruled that the side of a bus is a valid location to express speech under section 2(b) of the Charter, which protects freedom of speech. “Rather, it is only if the advertisement is offensive in that, for example, its content is discriminatory or it advocates violence or terrorism — regardless of whether it is commercial or political in nature — that the objective of providing a safe and welcoming transit system will be undermined.”
The majority further noted that “citizens, including bus riders, are expected to put up with some controversy in a free and democratic society.” However, they recognized that governments can limit some speech in bus advertisements. The likelihood of children being present would play a role, as would the audience’s ability to choose whether to be in the vicinity.
The advertisement in question on the Guelph buses reads: “This is a child. Not a choice. Why abortion when there are alternatives?” and has a picture of a fetus. Political speech lies at the core of the section 2(b) protection of free speech. The threshold for allowing governments to violate free speech is very high, and has not been met in this case.
In another issue involving TransLink last August, a group placed advertisements on public transit that depicted the alleged disappearance of Palestine. A local Jewish group said the ads incited hatred against Jewish people and considered filing a lawsuit against TransLink for allowing the advertisement, which cited the 2009 Supreme Court ruling in its decision to allow the ads. Another pro-Israel group in October took another approach: they took out advertisements on TransLink depicting the alleged disappearance of Israel.
The local petitioners would have much more success if they adopted such an approach. Rather than asking for a ban, they should instead launch a crowd-sourcing campaign to fund pro-choice messages on Guelph Transit vehicles.