Atheist Ads in Vancouver Get Rejected by Billboard Agency

In 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that transit officials could not ban political advertising — it was free speech even if it was controversial, so it had to be allowed. The ruling had the wonderfully unintended effect of opening the door for atheists to place ads of their own on buses across the country.

But that ruling applied to public transportation run by the government. What about billboards? They’re usually privately owned, but often on public property…

That question doesn’t have a clear-cut answer and Pattison Outdoor Advertising (a major billboard vendor in Vancouver, British Columbia) is betting that they have a right to reject atheist-themed billboards.

A few months ago, they told the Centre For Inquiry that the ads they submitted would not be accepted by the company:

The reason for the rejection?

… silence. The company offered no explanation at all. (I suppose it’s a total coincidence that its owner, Jim Pattison, is an evangelical Christian.)

It’s baffling to me. Those billboards are positive expressions of Humanism. One features a young woman (“Jenn 13:1 Praying won’t help. Doing will”) while the other features a man (“Dave 27:1 Lead with your heart. Not with your Bible”). If the billboard agency said the “praying won’t help” and “not with your Bible” bits were too offensive, I could live with that, but they didn’t do that. In fact, they gave CFI no guidelines or suggestions on what they would or wouldn’t accept in the future, leaving them with no direction.

And now, CFI plans to take action:

CFI will file a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal for violation of the BC Human Rights Code, which prohibits discrimination in service provision. CFI intends to explore all other legal options.

“CFI has consistently opposed the use of human rights apparatuses as tools of censorship,” said [CFI President Kevin] Smith. “Now we intend to use these mechanisms to protect the right of free speech.”

There are two basic arguments CFI has going for it. One, the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling should extend to billboards on public property just as it extended to public transportation. Two, this could be seen as religious discrimination and human rights laws forbid denying services to people based on their religious beliefs.

According to CFI’s Justin Trottier, the complaint will be filed within the next two weeks.

I’ve contacted Pattison Outdoor for comment and will update this post if/when I hear from them.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.