It’s a sad day when local newspapers fail to report on a local news item that has caused much debate nationally and internationally. Yet, some traditional journalists still lament social media for slowly eating away their influence as the only provider and controller of public information.
CBC reported that Halifax bus transit spokesperson, Lori Patterson, said “the transit authority would reconsider its position if Humanist Canada toned down its message.”
The story has garnered close to 300 comments in less than 24 hours. A similar campaign launched in England late last year sparked an important debate across the UK. The controversy led to 326 complaints from the public to the UK Advertising Standards Authority, which issued a precedent-setting decision in favor of the campaign and closed the case (see ruling here).
This story is obviously of major interest to the public. So why the silent treatment from Halifax newspapers?
If local residents relied on local newspapers, they would have no idea that this debate is taking place, and would have no opportunity to express their opinions about how the transit authority, a publicly funded body, should deal with issues of freedom of speech and religion that are a given right to all tax payers in Halifax who contribute to subsidize the transit authority.
The media needs to ask the tough questions. Would the transit authority allow an ad to be placed on Halifax buses that advertise a ‘Three Wisemen’ or ‘Baby Jesus’ Christmas play at the local church? What if the local Muslim association wanted to run an ad to announce the opening of their new mosque and library and inviting all interested people to join them for an opening ceremony? What about free speech?
Where do we draw the line as to what is appropriate to say, and who gets to decide what a ‘toned down’ religious statement is? Lori Patterson of Metro Transit?
The answer is that unless there are clear bylaws (that were voted on by representatives of the people in this city) against allowing religiously-affiliated advertising in publicly owned facilities and services, then separation of church and state remains the defacto rule.
If Metro Transit was a private company, then they can decide to run whatever ads they want on their buses and no one but their shareholders (and the advertising authorities) can say anything. But the transit authority is publicly funded, and therefore it must conduct itself in the best interest of the public, following the established bylaws, and removing personal opinions and religious affiliations/preferences when determining what is appropriate to be shown on the buses to the public.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists that “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms”:
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- freedom of association.
Are we going to see the appropriate attention and debate take place regarding this issue? Will our understanding of applied freedoms be enhanced by this event? This is a call to the Chronicle Herald and other media outlets in Halifax. Please give this issue the attention it deserves. (Edit: The Chronicle Herald published the story a couple of hours after this blog was posted).