For nearly a decade, the Guelph & Area Right to Life Association has been displaying advertisements on the back of several Guelph Transit buses. “Simply Human” is an ad most Guelph residents are likely familiar with; it depicts an image of an unborn human fetus next to the phrase “This is a child. Not a choice.”
The debate over these controversial ads was re-ignited when Heather Millman, a PhD candidate at Western University, began a petition on the website change.org. On the website, Millman writes: “In Canada women have the legal right to choose whether or not to abort a pregnancy. Women who exercise their right to choose should not be shamed by public bus ads promoting a subjective moral opposition to this right. It is shameful that the City of Guelph chooses the revenue from these ads over promoting women’s legal rights, and in doing so that it displays obvious prejudice against many of its citizens. The City of Guelph should hence remove all anti-abortion ads from its public buses and abstain from running any such biased and offensive ads in the future.” At the time of publication, the petition had accumulated almost 3,000 signatures.
With freedom of speech being an equally contentious issue as abortion, the petition sparked much debate over whether these advertisements should actually be displayed on the back of a public city bus.
In an argument against the removal of the advertisements, Cam Guthrie, a Ward 4 Councillor for the City of Guelph, stated that these ads do “not contravene our advertising policy,” though many argue that the ads breached some of the guidelines contained in The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
Section 1 of this guide states that “advertisements must not contain inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied,” while Section 11 states that they must not “play upon fears to mislead the consumer.” Millman stated that the phrasing of ‘This is a child. Not a choice’ is “misleading and deceptive, as it implies that abortion is not a viable option for women.” Canadian law places no legal restrictions on abortion, and it could be construed as deceptive to advertise that abortion is not a viable choice. In addition, stating that it is not a choice could play upon the fears of women due to certain social stigmas against abortion – stigmas that are, arguably, propagated by these very ads.
Section 14 of the guide states that advertisements in Canada must not “demean, denigrate or disparage one or more identifiable persons, group of persons…or attempt to bring it or them into public contempt or ridicule,” and must not “undermine human dignity; or display obvious indifference to, or encourage, gratuitously and without merit, conduct or attitudes that offend the standards of public decency….” On the 59 Carden St. blog, a poster going by the pseudonym ‘AS’ responded to this guideline by stating that “Women have been granted the right to choose abortion by the government of Canada, and these advertisements should be seen as demeaning to all women. This advertisement implies that women should NOT have explicit control over their own bodies.” Other posters added their own opinions on how the ad undervalues the choice women have in the matter, and how many could regard the ad as offensive. But, of course, many of these guidelines are designed to be subjective and up for interpretation.
Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge responded to the petition online, writing; “I appreciate that the Guelph & Area Right to Life advertisement may be seen as controversial, but refusing to post it could be seen as limiting freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Certainly the largest backlash against the removal of these ads came from those who stated its elimination would infringe on their personal freedom of speech and expression.
While our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does state that the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication” is a fundamental right for all Canadians, the rules are not always so absolute.
Section 1 of the Charter allows government to pass laws that limit free expression, so long as the limits are reasonable and justifiable.
In 1993, the Ontario court granted an injunction against anti-abortion protest activity that occurred in the vicinity of clinics and doctor’s offices. Though this limitation infringed on the protestor’s freedom of expression, the mandate stated that the physiological, psychological, and privacy interests of the women who would undergo an abortion would be at stake, and in this instance, the court allowed freedom of speech to be overridden.
But, what happens when buses containing the pro-life advertisements pass by a clinic or doctor’s office? What if a woman who has undergone an abortion is forced to ride that bus while travelling to work, or if it drives by her on the street? Is the same, if not similar, sort of physiological and psychological effect not present?
The issue at hand here is not on such a polarizing issue as abortion, but on whether or not the City of Guelph should accept an advertisement with such a controversial nature to be posted on a city bus. Maybe it is time for Guelph Transit to revisit their advertising policy and exhibit some editorial control over which advertisement appear on their public advertising.
Is this a situation where the right to freedom of speech requires limitations? Maybe our freedom of expression should only be protected when it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.