On TransLink buses (and one station) this week you might see an ad featuring four maps with progressively dwindling amounts of green on them. There are no exhortations. There isn’t a lot of context. But these are undoubtedly an intellectual freedom issue we should be aware of, because these ads are being challenged as the equivalent of homophobic sexist messages singling people out to feel unsafe.
Of course these maps are of Israel/Palestine.
The maps, created by the Palestine Awareness Coalition show the territory that Palestinians control and how it has shrunk over the 20th century, with a headline that reads “Disappearing Palestine.”
Marty Roth of the Palestine Awareness Coalition stands in front of a billboard depicting Palestinian land loss at the Vancouver City Centre SkyTrain Station on Tuesday. (Jenelle Schneider/The Province)
From the Province:
Marty Roth – a 79-year-old member of the coalition group behind the ad campaign – said they have already won a victory over groups that tried to “suppress” the ads.
“This will be controversial with a number of traditional Jewish organizations that have tried to suppress the ads,” Roth claimed. “But Trans-Link has refused to agree with them, because these are educational ads that are well within national advertising guidelines and the Canadian Charter (of Rights and Freedoms).”
In the Vancouver Sun Stephen Schachter, the co-chair for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, argued that these ads target Jewish people.
“I can think of all sorts of other kinds of advertising by other communities, whether it’s sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-other-ethnic or religious groups that would be prohibited,” he said.
“We have members of the Jewish community who say they are not going to use transit and are very concerned about safety issues as a result of this kind of advertising.”
This forcing an equivalence between political awareness-raising and inciting hatred “for the sake of a few thousand dollars” is an interesting tactic to try to pressure TransLink into suppressing these ads.
Farid Rohani, chair of the Laurier Institution, wrote an opinion piece on the issue in the Vancouver Sun:
To those who ask if a few objectionable ads aren’t just the inevitable cost of doing business, I tell them the ads in question aren’t just tasteless and out of place — they’re downright malicious. They send the message to our Jewish neighbours that their documented history is a fabrication. They suggest that the Jewish state is illegitimate or — worse — a creeping, illegal entity.
I can’t imagine the anxiety of a Jewish parent, with no other transportation option, sending their child off to school wearing a yarmulke on a bus featuring these ads. I’m worried that these ads could, at any time, provoke an unbalanced or even just ill-informed person to lash out verbally or physically. And I wouldn’t ask of my neighbour’s children what I do not expect for my own.
In my opinion, this is manipulative hyperbole, trying to bring the spectre of public safety into an (admittedly political) informational issue. Robyn Urback had it right in the National Post, saying “The suggestion that criticism of Israel necessarily amounts to hatred of its supporters is a ridiculous position.”
While there’s been talks about lawsuits, nothing seems to be going forward. TransLink stated that “they do not necessarily endorse or advocate statements put forward by outside advertisers.” It’s also worth noting, as Gary Mason does in the Globe and Mail, that TransLink on its own probably wouldn’t have put up the ads:
Once upon a time, it sanctioned only announcements that were decidedly non-offensive in nature. That meant any advertisement that advocated or opposed any ideology or political philosophy was off limits.
Several years ago, the Canadian Federation of Students wanted to run ads on the sides of buses urging young people to vote. Around the same time, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation approached TransLink about running posters highlighting workplace issues. Both groups were turned down. Believing that the transit authority’s position was untenable, the two parties joined together in a court action.
The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled on the matter in 2009. In taking the side of the students and the teachers’ union, the high court could not have been clearer: As a government agency, TransLink had no choice but to respect rights enshrined in the Charter.
That included freedom of expression.
In its ruling, the court said that TransLink failed to make the case that the infringing provisions of its advertising policies were justified in a free and democratic society. As such, they could be of no force or effect.
This issue is something librarians need to be aware of, especially since the ads are going to be going to other cities in the future. Marty Roth and the coalition behind the ads has said this is an awareness-raising campaign, so it probably behooves us to be aware of the issues. The posters are showing maps and stats. Jonathan Kay in the National Post notes that while these maps and stats are cherry-picking numbers and definitions, that’s exactly what all advertising does. He goes on to call out calling these ads “some kind of crude anti-Semitic blood libel.”
This is preposterous nonsense, and an abuse of the goodwill that Canadian society has properly extended to those who, in the past, have sought to fight genuine manifestations of bloody-minded anti-Semitic bigotry.
So people aren’t going to find unbiased information while riding the bus. Tell us something new. This seems to me to be a clear point for librarians to step in. We can help. As librarians let’s be prepared to provide the context that doesn’t fit on a poster.