The Justice Centre represented a non-profit human rights advocacy group in a court action against the City of Edmonton. The City cancelled bus advertisements that opposed the “honour killings” of women and girls, in response to complaints about the ads.
In October of 2013, ads ran on Edmonton Transit buses reading “Muslim Girls Honor Killed By Their Families”, showing photos of Aqsa Parvez and six other women, murdered for choosing to live by Western values like women’s equality. The rest of the ad read “Is your family threatening you? Is there a fatwa on your head? We can help: go to FightforFreedom.us”.
So-called “honour killings” occur when a woman is considered to have sullied the family’s honour through some sexual indiscretion, or even perceived immodesty. Her killing is considered to cleanse the family’s honour. Aqsa Parvez was only 16 when she was strangled to death for refusing to wear a hijab. Aqsa’s brother and father felt that not wearing a head scarf dishonoured the family, so they killed Aqsa in her own home in Mississauga, on December 10, 2007.
The transit ads were paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a non-profit, non-partisan human rights advocacy group. The organization defends freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, individual rights, and the equality of all people before the law.
Edmonton Transit pulled the ad after Edmonton City Councillor Amerjeet Sohi called to complain about it. The head of Edmonton Transit immediately ordered the ad taken down, without seeing the ad, considering its contents, or contemplating freedom of expression as defined by the Supreme Court. Edmonton Transit refused to answer questions from the American Freedom Defence Initiative (AFDI), the non-profit group which had paid for the ads. Only after AFDI started a court action did Edmonton start to claim that the ad was anti-Muslim.
Edmonton Transit has no consistent standard when it comes to bus ads. It previously dismissed complaints about a pro-Islamic ad, posted on buses, stating: “ISLAM The message of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad”, an assertion sure to be offensive to Jews and Christians. The Supreme Court requires governments to be neutral. But there is nothing neutral about permitting a pro-Islamic ad while removing an ad that Edmonton Transit (months later) called anti-Islamic.
The Court of Queen’s Bench heard oral argument in September 2016. The decision by Justice John Gill in American Freedom Defence Initiative v. City of Edmonton was released on October 4. The court rejected AFDI’s free expression claim, upholding Edmonton’s arbitrary double standard.
Rather than considering the ad alone, the court looked at internet postings about AFDI that were captured two years after the ad ran. The court, however, did not apply this same technique to the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which paid for the pro-Islam ad. A quick internet search reveals numerous allegations about ICNA connections to al-Qaeda, Hamas, anti-Semites, extremists, terrorists, and war criminals. No doubt ICNA would deny these allegations. It’s bad enough that politicians, bureaucrats and judges would have the power to censor speech they disagree with. But censorship becomes even worse when inquisitors purport to know the true meaning and intent of a bus ad, based not on the ad itself, but on Google searches conducted by City employees two years after the removal of the ad.
“One could argue that, as a forum for the free expression of ideas, the outside of a public transit bus should be less free than a public sidewalk. The Supreme Court may one day clarify its 2009 decision to strike down Vancouver’s ban on political ads. But in the interim, it’s disappointing to see a politician, a bureaucrat, and then a judge acting in unison to censor an ad they disagree with,” stated Justice Centre president John Carpay.
This decision has not been appealed.