Godless Advertising

The publicly-subsidized transit company in Halifax, Nova Scotia (the town where I live & work) is in the news today for its decision to reject what it considers “controversial” ads.

Here’s the story, from the Chronicle Herald: Metro Transit rejects Godless ad

Metro Transit will not allow an advertisement saying You Can Be Good Without God on its buses.

“We’re a public transit service first, and then we sell advertising on the side, and normally the standard procedure is we have a contracted agency who sells our advertising,” said Metro Transit spokeswoman Lori Patterson on Monday.

“If there’s something that’s viewed to be controversial, as part of our contract we get to see the messaging on it, and so they advise us if they think something’s going to be controversial and then we review the message.

“If we feel it’s going to be something that’s going to upset a number of people, we don’t choose to advertise it,” Ms. Patterson said.

Humanist Canada, the organization behind the advertisement, says on its website that it hopes to place the message in bus terminals and subway stations across Canada over the next few weeks.

“We want people to know that belief in a god is not necessary to live a full, moral and happy life. Humanists embody this concept every day,” Humanist Canada president Pat O’Brien wrote on the website on Friday.

Metro Transit doesn’t have a leg to stand on, here. They’re not wrong when they say that a number of people could be upset by the ad. But that’s a lousy criterion. In a society that values free speech, messages can’t be suppressed just because they might upset someone. (And for what it’s worth — though I think this is technically irrelevant — the message in question, here, is pretty inoffensive. Indeed, it’s a happy, hopeful message. And one that rings true. Readers of this blog will know that the arguments presented here never mention God. Ethical behaviour, and most ethical argumentation, does not have to be rooted in religious belief. Religious belief is a source of ethical inspiration for some, but religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethics.)

Private companies have more ethical leeway in terms of deciding what messages to broadcast. As I said three days ago, “When your local paper decides not to publish your letter to the editor, they’re not censoring you, they’re just not letting you use their privately-owned resources to make your point.” But Metro Transit is a public service, subsidized by tax-payers. It’s subject to a different standard.

Toronto has faced this issue, too. The Toronto Transit Commission did the right thing. Here’s the story, from City News:
‘No God’ Ads, Soon To Appear On TTC Vehicles, Spark Heated Debate

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

It’s certainly not everyone’s opinion, and it may or may not be yours – but if you’re a transit user in this city you’ll soon be seeing that message frequently.

It’s part of a controversial ad campaign by the Toronto-based Freethought Association of Canada that has been approved by the TTC to appear on buses and inside subway cars.

Let’s hope Metro Transit comes to its senses, and decides to be a little more open-minded and supportive of free speech.

5 comments so far

  1. Joseph Onesta on

    I think it is a very sad commentary that we spend so much effort trying not to say or do something because someone, an unknown person, might take offense. In the corporate world, we have a lot of discussions about diversity and inclusion and most of us genuinely do not mean offense when uttering or do something that shows some level of intolerance. S.L Robins calls it unintentional intolerance. Here is an example of an organization that is trying to avoid conflict or confrontation and its effort results in being offensive, just in a way that most people don’t think about. Unintentional intolerance.

  2. Anonymous on

    This God fearing Roman Catholic supports the group’s right to display such tame, inoffensive ads. If Metro Transit wants to keep “controversial” as their measure, they should define it as: “that which causes great offence due to incitement to hatred, scorn, ridicule, derision or mockery.” Even still, it is too subjective a term to codify. Christians are not mocked in the ads and they actually are eager for more theological and moral debate as well as polemics in a “free and open marketplace of ideas” like John Henry Cardinal Newman’s idea of a university.-Kevin McDonald

  3. Robert Lane on

    Are there any advertisements that ought not to be allowed in a publicly owned transit station (or on the side of public buses, inside public trains, etc.)? I agree with Chris that the government should operate under a different standard than, say, a privately-owned newspaper. And I think that the ad in question is relatively inoffensive. But are there no ads that it would be morally permissible for a government to refuse to allow in publicly owned spaces? (Of course I am setting aside ads the content of which it would be illegal to display in public in any case, e.g., pornographic ads.) What if the ad said “Atheism is superior to theism”? Or “Christianity is superior to Islam”? Or “Hinduism is superior to Judaism”? I’m not sure about any of these examples, but that’s the point. On what grounds could the publicly-subsidized transit company in Halifax allow the ad in question but not allow any of these?

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Robert:Good question. I wish I had a good answer.My only thought at the moment is that I think the semi-commercial nature of the bus suggests a half-way standard, of sorts.The transit “company” has an interest in maintaining a certain degree of decorum, a certain public image. So while I think that while the transit company, as a publicly-subsidized entity, ought to be pretty accepting, I think it might be justified in avoiding angry, spiteful messages, such as:“God hates group X.”“Christians are morons.”etc.Chris.

  5. Anonymous on

    its not so much a matter of making sure you dont offend an unkown person as it is keeping morals and ethics in society. we are taking Christ out of everything else, why should it be anything new that we take him out of t.v? its only a matter of time.he is coming. he is real. there is no life without him. after this life, everyone will see they were wrong all along. i hope they turn to him before hand. he loves you. hes waiting.

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