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B.C. community paper that refused to publish anti-abortion ad wins human rights case

This stock image shows advertising space in a newspaper. This stock image shows advertising space in a newspaper.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has dismissed a complaint that a community newspaper's refusal to run anti-abortion ads amounted to discrimination based on religion.

The dispute began nearly five years ago after a Halloween-themed ad by the Nelson Right to Life Society that ran in the Nelson Star sparked an "immediate and overwhelming" backlash, tribunal member Devyn Cousineau's ruling explains.

The ad, which is reproduced in the tribunal's decision, said: "Is it really just your body? Choose life Mummy! An abortion will haunt you forever." The photo is of a pregnant woman wearing a T-shirt with the skeleton of a smiling infant on it. "A baby is the sweetest treat ever!"

The paper's editor and published told the tribunal that the reaction to the ad was so intense that a decision was made to institute a moratorium on any ads on the subject of abortion – either for or against – starting on Nov. 1, 2018.

"They say that their decision to stop printing ads regarding abortion was justified by the local backlash, the impact of such ads on women, and advertising standards which prohibit ads that are misleading or deceptive, and which demean, denigrate or disparage a group of people," Cousineau wrote.

In 2019, the paper refused to run one of the society's ads, prompting the complaint to the tribunal.

The society argued that the rejection of the ad was discriminatory because its opposition to abortion is rooted in members' Catholic faith.

In order to succeed, the society would have to prove that they were denied a service that was available to the public, that the denial was due to their religion, and that the denial of the service had an adverse impact.

As a remedy, the society was asking the tribunal to order that it be granted "unfettered access to advertising pro-life advertisements including pictures of pre-born children for any group or persons."

In response, Black Press Media and the paper's editor and publisher asked that the complaint be dismissed because it had no "reasonable prospect of success." Evidence supporting their position included the fact that no ads about abortion have been printed in the paper since the moratorium was called.

Cousineau found that the society was unlikely to be able to prove discrimination and that even if it did, the paper was "reasonably certain" to justify its decision if the complaint moved to a hearing.

"They made their decision in order to preserve their business interests and acceptance by the local community, which is rationally connected to their function as a local medium of news and communication which relies on revenue from ad sales," she wrote.

"They made their decision in good faith, believing it was necessary to achieve that goal, and the decision to stop publishing abortion ads was reasonably necessary to achieve their goal, and specifically respond to concerns about the potential impact of abortion-related ad content on their business interests, women, and compliance with advertising standards."

The decision also notes that the dispute over the ads came at a time when the issue of "right to life" images was inflaming tensions in Nelson. City council, in response to a complaint about an anti-abortion banner, decided to prohibit any and all banners from flying over the city's downtown. Top Stories

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