Monday, October 19, 2009

Throwing free speech under the bus

Ottawa City Council is looking to update its transit advertising policy, after receiving complaints that they had a double standard for ads that talk about God.

The incident earlier this year saw the Transit Committee first refusing to run, then eventually allowing, ads by the Humanist Association of Ottawa that read, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Well, as a result of all the hoopla, The City of Ottawa is changing the advertising policies of its transit company to conform with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Here's what will not be accepted as transit advertising in Ottawa, according to the Citizen:
If the revised policy is approved by the transit committee and council, the city will not accept an ad that:

• Is of questionable taste or which is irritating in its content or method of presentation;
• in the opinion of the city disparages any city service, or promotes a product by drawing negative comparison with a city service; or
•Discourages the use of public transit.

The new policy will only encourage ads that "portray positive images of people, avoiding the use of extreme and inappropriate postures that inappropriately accentuate one part of the body."

Ottawa Transit Committee Chair Councillor Alex Cullen also made a statement about decency: "Questionable taste is a large grey area and we have to be conscious of the Charter, but there are times when the majority of people will say something crosses the line."

Clear Channel
, who sell the space on OC Transpo bus shelters, is concerned about this proposed policy. And so am I.

The broad wording about "taste" and "positive images of people", combined with the Councillor's statement about the sensitivities of "the majority of people", basically continue the City's ability to subjectively ban any ad that it doesn't like.

There was also this frightening comment: "We own the buses and we don't like somebody putting on ads that say, 'Don't take this bus'."

City Council does not own the busses. We all do. That's why it's called "public" transit.

That's also why we need fair and transparent policies around the kind of ads that are placed on our shared properties. People have the right not to be bullied or slandered in public communication. But they do not necessarily have the right not to be offended. As long as they are not being targetted by hate speech, obscenity, or other legally-defined nastiness, who is to say what does and does not cross the line? Will we have to start having an ad referendum every time an edgy new campaign comes to town?

I'm just glad nobody complained about this one:

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