National Post: In transit ads, anything goes after top court ruled bus riders must ‘put up with controversy’

Brian Hutchinson, National Post Full Comment, August 29, 2013

Public transit advertisements depicting an expanding Israeli territory are causing a fuss in Metro Vancouver, with some Jewish groups demanding the removal of posters from 15 city buses and a train station, and with pro-Palestinian organizations vowing to expand their “settlement and occupation” awareness campaign across Canada.

“We think it’s particularly important that people in Vancouver and other Canadian cities learn about what’s happening in Palestine now and what’s happened historically,” a spokeswoman for the Palestinian Awareness Coalition, the group responsible for the ad campaign, told the Canadian Press this week.

Meanwhile, B’nai Brith’s national director for legal affairs says that TransLink, the government agency responsible for public transit in Metro Vancouver, should pull the posters, claiming they are “derogatory of Israel and its supporters” and therefore violate TransLink’s “own rules and regulations.”

Could we do without the controversy? Of course. The usual suspects are weighing in over a decades-old conflict that requires more than a few rudimentary drawings to explain, much less understand and resolve.

Don’t expect TransLink to pull them down. This isn’t about money. TransLink billed only $15,000 in exchange for hosting the month-long, pro-Palestinian campaign, which began this week.

And it’s not about principles, doing what is right, and fair, and in the greatest public interest. The fact is, TransLink can avoid neither politics, nor controversy, nor bad taste. It’s been told so, by no less an authority than the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 2009, the court upheld a B.C. Appeal Court decision that TransLink had violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, when it refused to host some political advertising proposed by the Canadian Federation of Students, and by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

TransLink’s Charter transgressions? Maintaining policies to prohibit advertising that “is likely, in the light of prevailing community standards, to cause offence to any person or group of persons or create controversy,” and that “advocates or opposes any ideology or political philosophy, point of view, policy or action.”

The courts found these too far-reaching. “While a community standard of tolerance may constitute a reasonable limit on offensive advertisements, excluding advertisements which ‘create controversy’ is unnecessarily broad,” wrote Supreme Court of Canada Justice Marie Deschamps. “Citizens, including bus riders, are expected to put up with some controversy in a free and undemocratic society.”

So here’s what all transit users in every Canadian city must now tolerate, and which anyone riding a TransLink bus and walking through a downtown Vancouver train station on Thursday could have encountered: Advertising that sows discord among religious and ethnic groups; advertising that touts abortion; advertising that promotes sexual activity and gambling.

InTransitBC, the company that operates the Canada Line train system in Vancouver and neighbouring Richmond, seems especially enamoured of politically correct commercials and causes. Three years ago, it installed a number of “anti-capitalist” prints it commissioned from artist Claudio Rivera-Seguel. The prints featured images of businessmen with captions such as “CONSUME…With pleasure until you are infected and rotting inside,” and “CONFORM…Now and freely accept a perpetual chronic disease.”

InTransitBC and TransLink currently provide advertising space to DVC Ventures Inc, which rents firearms to the public and manages an indoor shooting range in Port Coquitlam.

It’s refreshing to know that even on Canada’s looney left coast, adults may be encouraged to consider the sport of target shooting. But DVC’s transit posters have upset even some gun owners. “What will you set your sights on?” reads the DVC ad copy, over images of bullet-ridden parking meters, alarm clocks and lawn mowers.

“We’re target shooters, we’re hunters, we’re not involved in doing vandalism or drive-by shootings or shooting up parking meters or other inanimate objects,” a Richmond Rod and Gun Club executive told QMI Agency in June. “I look at this thing and it disturbs me.”

No matter. The provocative pictures have remained on transit station walls, because the Supreme Court has ruled: Common sense and discretion have no place on the public commute any more.

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