An ad campaign on Vancouver's transit system depicting the shrinking nature of the Palestinian territories into the state of Israel is stirring quite the controversy. The ads, titled "Disappearing Palestine," went up in Vancouver on Tuesday and are meant to highlight the annexation of Palestinian territory due to the Israeli occupation.
"The Canadian government has been such a strong voice in support of Israel ... so we think it's particularly important that the people in Vancouver and other Canadian cities learn about what's happening in Palestine now and what's happened there historically," said Charlotte Kates, a spokeswoman for Palestine Awareness Coalition.
Pro-Israel Jewish groups have expressed strong opposition to the ads and have attempted to get them removed. However, the transit agency said in a written statement that "It was advised by its lawyers that it was legally obligated to run the ads." TransLink also said in a news release that advertising policy cannot violate freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chair Mitchell Gropper disagrees. He believes that there are limits to free speech. "You cannot use free speech to libel and slander others, you can not use free speech to endanger other groups," he said. But libel and slander involve defamation — the communication of false information about a person, group, or entity. The ads do neither. As such, the Disappearing Palestine ads cannot and should not be removed because they are a clear form of freedom of speech.
In Canada, freedom of speech is a protected fundamental freedom. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media." And as such, the ad campaign on Vancouver's transit system cannot be removed. Nothing the ads display is hateful or endangering of a group of people.
Providing a map that illustrates the shrinking nature of the Palestinian territory via illegal occupation is not not libel or slander. It's instead an accurate lesson in geography. And since the goal of the advertising campaign, which according to Martha Roth of Independent Jewish Voices is "to make the Canadian public aware of Israel's steady absorption of Palestinian territory from 1946 to the present day and the constant oppression that accompanies that occupation," is neither defamatory or harmful, the ads cannot be removed.
Freedom of speech is not without limits. However, TransLink's decision to run the ads after a number of organizations attempted to suppress them was the right choice. Just because someone may not agree with what is being said, doesn't mean the right to say it should be prohibited.
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