Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Controversial

Officials at Halifax transit have refused to allow atheist bus ads on the grounds that they are too "controversial." Controversial. That's a coward's word. It is Halifax transit's way of not dealing with the real issue. Either they are willing to defend free expression or they are not; if they are willing to deny paid, legal advertising that expresses the benign sentiment that "You can be good without God," they should be prepared to explain what's wrong with it. And if they do decide to arbitrarily stomp on free expression, they should not hide behind vague worries about "controversy." First of all, what's wrong with controversy? Isn't this a democracy where we seek to advance ourselves through debate and discussion? Aren't most important ideas controversial at some point? God save us from a world without controversy. Or is there a God? Apparently the Halifax transit authority knows for sure.

What is the effect of only allowing non-controversial opinions to be expressed in public venues? It is to allow free speech for those who hold the most conservative views and to exclude new and radical ideas. Avoiding "controversy" is the spineless administrator's excuse for supporting the status quo.

2 comments:

Sarah said...

I disagree Todd, since the adds are ultimately about making money, I think that the transit authority is just trying to avoid losing profits from those people who would be offended. I do know they do not have the opposing view on ads either. And I do not think it is a free speech issue when they are charging for add space. I think are completely correct in deciding which adds to include and not include. These types of statements would be more appropriate in a university setting. I do know that if I was running an enterprise that made money, I would not allow advertisements that are most likely to cause any kind of controversy. That would be poor business sense.

Pettrichor said...

I see your point, but disagree for two reasons. First, running businesses does not give the business owners carte blanche to trample the constitutionally guarenteed rights of the people they serve. For instance, if most of your customers are racists, it does not give you the right to bar minorities from your restaurant, even if it would be bad for business. Put another way, if you run a business that is open to the public, you must accept business from the public without discrimination. Put still another way: businessmen who owned professional baseball teams once refused to sign black players; they were wrong to do so.

Second, since we live in a mixed-market capitalist society, most of our venues for public expression will be owned by some business or another. Most TV stations, most radio stations, newspapers, internet providers (including this blog site), and so on -- these are businesses but they are the means by which people can express themselves to a wide audience. If free speech is to mean anything, it must include access to the ways in which people can speak freely.

One last thing -- people might resort to public venues like universities, as you say, but then the response is inevitable: "Why should taxpayer dollars be used to support such things? If these people want to spread their message, let them buy advertising!"