The Supreme Court of Canada has given a green light to political advertising on the sides of transit vehicles, ruling that a bus is a "public place" where free expression should rarely be curtailed.
The court ruled 8-0 against a policy that two B.C. mass transit agencies, TransLink and BC Transit, invoked to refuse political ads that they feared might make passengers uncomfortable.
"I have some difficulty seeing how an advertisement on the side of a bus that constitutes political speech might create a safety risk or an unwelcoming environment for transit users," Madam Justice Marie Deschamps said for the court.
"Citizens, including bus riders, are expected to put up with some controversy in a free and democratic society."
The court concluded that an advertising ban could be justified only to screen out ads that could create a dangerous, offensive or hostile environment, such as ones extolling the virtues of terrorism.
"It does not follow that government has to abandon any notion of taste," said Chris Sanderson, a lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "What government does have to be able to do is justify any limitations it puts on free expression."
Yesterday's ruling has no bearing on private companies or commercial vehicles, which are not bound by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The case arose in 2004, when the B.C. component of the Canadian Federation of Students and the British Columbia Teachers' Federation were refused permission to buy ad space on buses. The CFS wanted to encourage young people to vote in a forthcoming provincial election. The BCTF intended to express concern about changes in the public education system.
TransLink and B.C. Transit policy permitted commercial advertising with the exception of political ads that were "likely to cause offence to any person or group of persons or create controversy."
Judge Deschamps said that the policies "amount to a blanket exclusion of a highly valued form of expression in a public location that serves as an important place for public discourse."
"Moreover, an important aspect of a bus is that it is by nature a public, not a private, space," she said. "Unlike the activities which occur in certain government buildings or offices, those which occur on a public bus do not require privacy and limited access."
Lawyers for the transit companies had argued that their advertising ban was necessary to guarantee "a safe and welcoming environment" for riders and drivers.
They said that passengers are "captive" to messages on the inside and outside of vehicles because they have to approach, enter and ride on them.
The agencies also maintained that the policy was created to prevent the public from concluding that they endorsed any political view that advertisers might seek to place on them.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association argued during the appeal that political advertising lies at the heart of the Charter section that protects freedom of expression, and noted that citizens have "learned to distinguish between the message and the owner of the locationwhere the message is delivered.
In 2006, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in favour of striking down the advertising restrictions.