When a pro-Palestinian organization launched a provocative ad campaign earlier this week, it didn’t take long for Jewish organizations across the country to register their outrage. But in a classic case of shoot the messenger, most of their anger was directed at TransLink – the authority that allowed images of shrinking Palestinian territory to be plastered on buses and the walls of transit stations.
If TransLink had its way, it likely would not have run the ads. Once upon a time, it sanctioned only announcements that were decidedly non-offensive in nature. That meant any advertisement that advocated or opposed any ideology or political philosophy was off limits.
Several years ago, the Canadian Federation of Students wanted to run ads on the sides of buses urging young people to vote. Around the same time, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation approached TransLink about running posters highlighting workplace issues. Both groups were turned down. Believing that the transit authority’s position was untenable, the two parties joined together in a court action.
The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled on the matter in 2009. In taking the side of the students and the teachers’ union, the high court could not have been clearer: As a government agency, TransLink had no choice but to respect rights enshrined in the Charter.
That included freedom of expression.
In its ruling, the court said that TransLink failed to make the case that the infringing provisions of its advertising policies were justified in a free and democratic society. As such, they could be of no force or effect.
Which brings us back to the ad campaign that has so upset parts of the Jewish community, one purporting to show how much Israel has encroached on Palestinian land in the past 66 years. It says five million Palestinians are now considered refugees by the United Nations.
Jewish organizations insist the campaign is factually inaccurate and could incite hatred and violence. But they seem mostly upset at TransLink for allowing the ads to go up. They have nothing to say, it seems, about the Palestine Awareness Coalition’s right to express an opinion.
Blaming TransLink is missing the point. The highest court in the land has said it cannot discriminate against the type of political commentary expressed in this ad campaign. While quasi-government bodies such as TransLink have no obligation to help anyone provide these views, they do have to assure fair and equal access to the advertising platforms they offer.
“Political speech in particular is core to the values around free expression that we need to protect,” says Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
“We see no reason why the public should be insulated from these issues even though they might be emotional or cause consternation or where they make people feel uneasy. That’s part of the public discussion.”
Of course, Mr. Paterson is correct. If you are committed to democracy and free speech – as I’m sure organizations such as B’Nai Brith are – then you need to defend those ideals even when you vehemently disagree with what you are hearing.
Political discourse around contentious matters such as the future of the Palestinian territories is always going to be engulfed by competing arguments. If you disagree with someone’s position, the answer is not to take away their right to express it. The answer is to argue to the contrary, to do a better job of getting your side of the issue out there.
More public discourse is always better than less.
This controversy is not likely to fade away soon. The Palestine Awareness Coalition has indicated the ads will likely pop up in other Canadian cities in the coming weeks. It is designed on a similar campaign that has been running in several big U.S. centres.
The outrage among some Jewish groups over the ads is misguided. If people have a problem with the campaign’s message then say so; make the case against it.
Better still: Take out an ad.