Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Of buses, speech, God and freedom

Alright, I'm a little late to the game on this, but I just felt that I had to weigh in on this. There's been a mini-controversy regarding political and religious advertising on buses throughout Canada. There was a B.C. case that is to have an impact on the buses in Halifax. I don't live in either of these places, so I'm going to take a look at it from the vantage point of the Ottawa bus system (OC Transpo).

The column I link to is titled, Supreme Court gets a free speech case right. At first blush, that seems like an accurate analysis. Whether you want to encourage people to vote, promote a specific issue for voters, or comment on the existance of God, in Canada, you are free to speak your mind.

However, this case isn't about an individual (or group) saying anything; it is about someone using someone else's property as a vehicle for spreading their message (no pun intended). Just as each person seeking advertising space has a right to speak freely, the bus companies (in Ottawa's case, OC Transpo) have the right control what is said via their buses. OC Transpo, or more specifically its management, has an equivalent claim to freedom of speech. If such a company decides they do not want certain types of messages on their buses, that is their right.

Oh, but wait, here's the twist. In Ottawa's case (and I'd venture to guess in B.C. and Halifax), the bus company is not a private entity. OC Transpo is run by the city of Ottawa... not to mention, funded by them. The city of Ottawa has no inherent right to curtail free speech. Consequently, one can legitimately argue that an entity like OC Transpo does not have the right to deny broadcasting these controversial messages.

Alright, so now we've got the municipal government stomping on the free speech of its citizens. Well, that really is a violation of western liberalism, and, more pertinently, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. So we're back to the original column's point that the Supreme Court got this one right.

But now we're not really talking about free speech. OC Transpo, though they do have their own revenue streams, are, in part, funded by the government... and by that, I mean taxpayers... private individuals with the same rights as those who wish to place controversial ads on the buses. So it's not free speech; it's subsidized speech.

Just as a true private company has the right to decide what messages it broadcasts, each taxpayer has the right to decide what messages he or she broadcasts... except the Supreme Court doesn't seem to agree. They have brought us to a point where people have the right to have the public fund thier speech.

So what's the answer to this? In some ways, there is no good answer. Generally, free speech should trump just about any regulation imposed against it (perjury is a good exception). Generally, the rest of us should not be on the hook for someone else's "free" speech. I'm inclined to think that the right thing to do in such a conflict is to side with the people who are having someone else's "freedom" imposed upon them. If the government is taking your money, it'd be nice if they didn't then use it to promote an idea you find abhorrent (of course, this isn't an idea always shared by the government of Canada), but I'm not really comfortable taking the side of what seems like censorship.

So, again, what's the answer to this? Well, there is a good answer, a damn good answer: the government should not be running a bus company.

This is actually a ridiculous controversy. We shoudn't be worried about a government-as-owner censoring bus ads. If OC Transpo were a true private actor, the Supreme Court (not to mention the municipal government) would have absolutely no business telling them what they can and cannot place on the sides of their buses (though, I'm sufficently accomodating to agree that porn could be censored - quite gracious, I know).

I imagine their would be objections to this. People do not like paying an appropriate fare for transit, nor do they like the idea of limiting bus service only to places and times when their is sufficient demand for it. I've thought about such objections, but this post is getting pretty long, so I'll address such concerns in another post.

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