The city told the group its proposed ads violated the advertising standards code. (Photo courtesy City of Grande Prairie)
A recent Grande Prairie, Alta. case is a prime example of how freedom of expression is limited in Canada.
In early 2015, a pro-life group applied to the city to get permission to post an ad on city buses that contained two images of fetuses in different stages of development. The third image was the word “GONE” with a blank background. Next to the images are the words “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN”.
The city rejected the ads saying that public transit is taxpayer funded and that, “this ad would be disturbing to people within our community.”
The city also told them that the group’s proposed ads violated the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. The code forbids “disturbing” ads that may be offensive to people.
The group took the city to court, claiming the city’s refusal to post their ad was a violation of their their freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The group also claimed that the code is irrelevant in this case, because it’s a non-governmental regulator that doesn’t consider charter issues.
The city responded by saying that the ad the pro-life group proposed is “damaging psychologically to women who have chosen to exercise their legal right to abortion and are likely to disturb public well-being.”
The city also argued that there are court-recognized limits on freedom of speech, which apply to hate speech. This ad, they argued, was created to promote hatred against women who choose to get abortions.
The courts have regularly restricted hate speech, because of the danger that it represents to the identifiable group it’s directed against, as well as the public. The courts recognize that may violate a person’s freedom of speech but it’s necessary for harm prevention.
The court accepted the city’s arguments that the ad was damaging and told the group that while their freedom of expression may have been violated, it was justified.
The city has the legal obligation to provide a safe and welcome transit system for the general public and this ad would jeopardize that goal, which is why it was reasonable for the city to reject the group’s proposed ad.