By Jensen, Randy on October 31, 2020.
The Court of Queen’s Bench has ruled against the City of Lethbridge in a dispute with the Lethbridge and District Pro-Life Association over the City’s refusal to carry advertising from the organization on local buses, bus shelters, bus benches and other publicly owned advertising spaces.
In a decision released on Thursday, Justice M. David Gates ruled the City has unfairly discriminated against the organization in refusing to offer equal access to the advertising space. He noted that despite receiving some complaints about the group’s previous, more graphic advertisements, which had been removed by order of city council in 2018 after receiving over 100 citizen complaints, and which were later removed by Pattison Outdoor Advertising when they were found to be in violation of Canadian Ad Standards guidelines, that five other rejected advertisements from the group were different than those which had run before, and should have been considered on their own merits.
Gates also noted nearly 1,300 people signed a petition in support of the group’s right to freedom of expression, and the City’s decision to favour one group of complainants over another was also discriminatory, in his judgment, and contrary to the guarantee to freedom of expression protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Public upset and alarm are not sufficient to tip the balance away from the protection of freedom of expression,” Gates ruled, “a strong and healthy democracy requires a willingness on the part of the public to accept that the expression of opinions and ideas may, at time, shock, offend and even disturb them.”
Gates ordered as part of his decision that the City of Lethbridge reimburse the cost of the legal fees for the Lethbridge and District Pro-Life Association.
Lethbridge and District Pro-Life Association lawyer Carol Crosson told The Herald on Friday the decision was a victory for free speech.
“From my perspective it is important for every Canadian’s freedom of expression that the court saw things our way,” she said. “This decision underlines that the right to freedom of expression exists for every Canadian whether the government thinks their expression is accurate or not, or whether the government takes their side on the issue.”
Crosson said the City had clearly taken one side of the issue, and had unfairly discriminated against her clients in this instance.
“These signs never made their way to the public,” she said. “These signs were submitted to the City, these five ads, and the City rejected them. And part of that rejection was based on a prior ad that had been complained against by a few members of the public.
“It was a blatant breach of the client’s Charter 2(b) rights,” she further stated. “The argument that the City can turn down any advertising it likes does not accord with the law because a government entity is required to protect freedom of expression for all individuals, no matter what side of issue it chooses to take. It is tasked with not taking a side.”
Crosson acknowledged the issue of pro-life versus pro-choice is a passionate one for many.
“I think our passion on issues should be only superseded by our passion to protect the right for every individual to share their views, and so if one truly values that right they value that right for all sides on an issue,” she stated.
Mayor Chris Spearman responded on Friday with a statement on behalf of the City of Lethbridge.
“This decision just came out (Thursday), and we really haven’t had a chance to delve into this,” he said. “But it is a complex and divisive issue in our city. The City is called to balance all sides, and sometimes it can be very difficult to get that balancing right. We are now reviewing the decision that has been announced in determining what the next steps will be. At this point, we will look at what this decision means for the City of Lethbridge. And, I am sure, other communities have similar concerns.”
Those wanting to review the complete published decision can do so by going to https://albertacourts.ca/qb/resources/judgments.
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter