By Faye Sonier

Article originally published as a guest column in the Guelph Mercury.

Every few years, city bus banner ads in Guelph trigger debate about free speech rights.

A few years ago, it was an atheist ad that read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This year, it’s a couple of ads from Alliance for Life Ontario. One ad depicts a fetus at 19 weeks of development and states, “This is a child, not a choice.” The second includes images of fetuses with the message, “I’m a human being with potential, not a potential human being.”

Coun. Ian Findlay shared on his blog that he had received complaints about the ads and posted one such anonymous complaint. The complainant argues that the ads are “highly inappropriate for public property”, that as a woman she finds the ad offensive and that since abortions at 19 weeks are rare, the first ad is misleading.

And to the complainant, I say “So what?”

We live in a pluralistic, multicultural society where no two citizens hold identical views, or are required to do so. We live in a constitutionally described “free and democratic society” that is characterized by freedoms of expression, conscience, association and religion, among others, guaranteed constitutionally in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

If, as a society, we fail to value the conversation that arises from an open marketplace of shared ideas, and if we were to appoint someone, such as the complainant, to judge which expressions should be banned according to her subjective standards of “offensiveness” or “misleadingness,” there would be very little free speech indeed.

In fact, the complainant would in a short time also find herself and organizations that she supports muzzled from expression by another someone, somewhere, who might be offended by their beliefs, expressions or advertising.

The Supreme Court of Canada dealt with this kind of advertising in 2009. The Canadian Federation of Students and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation wanted to place political advertising on Vancouver buses in the run-up to the 2005 provincial election. The city’s transit authority refused.

Through a series of appeals, the case made its way to our highest court. The court found that the transit authority was a government entity, that the charter applied to its actions and, accordingly, to restrict reasonable advertising was to violate the charter’s right to free expression.

The court found that bus ad space “allows for expression by a broad range of speakers to a large public audience” and that “like a city street, a city bus is a public place where individuals can openly interact with each other and their surroundings.” And, importantly for us all, that “citizens, including bus riders, are expected to put up with some controversy in a free and democratic society.”

Being occasionally offended is one of the small costs we pay to live in our society.

I don’t like being ridiculed any more than the next person. Being an Evangelical Christian and also a pro-life advocate, I see my identity and beliefs belittled with surprising frequency. But would I suggest that hostile anti-religionists or pro-choice advocates be silenced? Never. If they are silenced by the state, I soon will be, too.

Even though I have been offended and my feelings have been hurt by things said or published, I do care about the people that live in my community and my country. I want to know what they believe and why they believe it. And when I’m passionate enough about the issue in question, I’ll take opportunities such as these to respectfully engage in discussion with them. I may challenge their beliefs, but they’ll challenge mine as well.

This is both the difficulty and the simplicity of living in a free society. We don’t agree on every issue, and we don’t have to. But hopefully we can agree on at least one thing: that the right to free expression is a right worth defending.

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