Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Canadian Federation of Students & the Supreme Court: A Victory for Free Speech re: Political Advertising on Public Transit

(originally posted at www.greenparty.ca)

Let me start this little blogpost by referring to conversations which I engaged in with fellow students back in the days when I attended University. That was quite some time ago now. I recall that a number of my fellow classmates used to question the wisdom of paying student union dues. Part of the answer always given was that union dues went, in part, to support the CFS, the Canadian Federation of Students. Many of classmates wondered openly just what good the CFS ever did for anyone anyway.

I haven’t thought very much about the CFS lately, it’s true. Not until this week, anyway. Looks like the CFS has done all Canadians a huge favour by chalking up a win for freedom of expression in this great nation of ours. Apparently, back in 2005, during a British Columbia provincial election campaign, the CFS wanted to buy some ads from a local transit operator. Due to the transit operator’s policies to not sell advertising which might be controversial, the CFS was denied the opportunity to express its opinions.

The CFS was apparently unsatisfied with this result, thinking that maybe they, or their message, was being discriminated against. After all, transit vehicles are semi-public venues, are they not? The transit operator in question receives funding from public-sector sources. What’s up with a policy which denies freedom of expression? Sure, sometimes organizations which want to express their points of view can be controversial, and no everyone wants to hear about it. But this is Canada, isn’t it? We’ve come to understand that not everyone holds our own point of view, and we’ve come to expect to hear the alternative points of views of others. Banning statements made by organizations by denying them the opportunity to purchase advertising simply because their message might offend someone or cause controversy is problematic for many of us.

I ride the bus. A lot. Goodness knows public transit is one place where you’re going to hear the alternative views of others! But I digress.

Well, years later, and after a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision, turns out the CFS was right. They were discriminated against. Partisan advertising which might be political in nature (the CFS wanted to urge students to vote in the election) should be allowed on public transit vehicles. Transit operator policies which prohibit such advertising are unconstitutional, as they infringe upon Charter rights.

None of this is to suggest that anyone should be able to buy advertising for anything that they want. There are other prohibitions on speech in the Charter which must be adhered to, and these limits on freedom of expression are, in my opinion, largely sensible.
What does this all mean for the Green Party? Well, I’m sure that many of our campaigns across the country have identified public transit riders as being those voters who we might want to target with Green messages before and during an election campaign. Some of us might have checked out our local transit operators policies on running ads on behalf of the Green Party, an EDA or a Green Party Candidate during an election, and we might have been told that due to their policies, they would not accept such advertising. As a result, it made reaching out to voters who might be sympathetic to our messaging that much more difficult.

With an imminent election call hanging in the air like a bad smell generated by a coal burning power plant, we Greens involved with election campaigns may wish to turn our thoughts again to advertising on public transit vehicles, now that the Supreme Court has provided some direction on this matter. Just something to think about. It’s good to know, now, that a picture of your local candidate with the message: "Vote Green" on a bus during a federal election campaign is something which public transit operators are now going to have accommodate.

And while we’re at it, let’s say thanks to the CFS for fighting the good fight, no doubt at great cost and frustration.

Here are some related links:

Judgement of the Supreme Court of Canada: Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students – British Columbia Component

Keep this tucked away in your back pocket for when you approach your local transit operator and ask to buy advertising.

Article by Paul Schneidereit, Chronicle-Herald (Nova Scotia) in which a related matter is discussed: banning ads on transit vehicles which promote atheism

Article by Mindelle Jacobs, Sun Media

Canwest News article:


Bluegreenblogger said...

Oh! I didn't even think about the fact that this opens up the TTC for GPC advertising. I have blogged before about how local print media buys are a waste of local campaign funds. This fits into a whole other category. Highly targetted advertising, of a well defined target audience. Certainly Toronto Greens should be lobbying hard for the National Campaign to DUMP TV advertising, and plow those funds into Transit advertising. That will translate into a whole lot of votes.

Matthew Tripp said...
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