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B.C. newspaper wins case over refusal to run abortion ads

The Nelson Star decided not to run any abortion-related advertising due to a backlash from the community.
B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal has upheld a newspaper's right to reject advertising that could be detrimental to its business interests.

B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal has dismissed a complaint of discrimination on religious grounds from an anti-abortion group who claimed their rights were violated by a Nelson newspaper that refused to run abortion ads on either side of the debate.

“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,” tribunal vice-chair Devyn Cousineau said in a newly released Oct. 17 decision.

Cousineau said the Nelson Right to Life Society, whose members adhere to the Catholic faith, had purchased ads in the Nelson Star for anti-abortion ads "for several years."

On Oct. 27, 2018, the newspaper published the society's Halloween ad showing a T-shirt of a baby skeleton below an adult rib cage. A pregnant woman was wearing the shirt.

The Nelson Star told Cousineau the public response to the ad was "immediate and overwhelming." It said it received dozens of complaints, including from women who described the ad as “harsh and shaming” and “triggering.”

The tribunal heard businesses had threatened to stop advertising and to stop carrying hardcopy issues of the newspaper.

“They determined that it was no longer in their business interest to print anti-abortion ads in the face of such a strong backlash,” Cousineau said.

“The timing coincided with growing local opposition to other anti-abortion displays in the community,” Cousineau said.

On Nov. 1, 2018, publisher Eric Lawson said the paper would implement a “cooling off” period, during which the paper would not publish any more ads about abortion — either for or against — because the community backlash had been so strong.

So, when the society submitted another anti-abortion ad for publication days later, it was refused.

“The Nelson Star has not printed any abortion-related ads since its Nov. 1, 2018, moratorium,” Cousineau said.

The society and its representative Peter Nachbaur alleged the Nelson Star’s refusal to publish their ads was discrimination based on religion in violation of the B.C. Human Rights Code.

The remedy they sought, Cousineau said, is “unfettered access to advertising pro-life advertisements including pictures of pre-born children for any group or persons.”

The company argued the 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.” 

The company acknowledged it had, for years, published anti-abortion ads submitted by the society, but argued it was entitled to, and did, change the scope of the service the newspaper provided so that they no longer published any ads regarding abortion.

It said Lawson’s decision to implement the “cooling off” period was based purely on business considerations and not religion.

Cousineau noted the local context for complaints to the newspaper about the ad was one in which the community’s tolerance for “right to life” images was changing.

“This was manifest in a controversy around the same time about an anti-abortion street banner, which led the municipal council to end its program of allowing street banners altogether,” Cousineau said.

The tribunal member said there was no evidence the newspaper had made the decision in bad faith.

Further, Cousineau said, the ad appeared to violate the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.

“The Ad Standards Council, which interprets and applies the Advertising Standards, has found that antiabortion ads violate these clauses when they: imply that a fetus is human, imply that people who have an abortion kill or deprive a fetus of choice, and suggest that people routinely have late-term abortions (for example, by using images of visibly pregnant bodies). As one reader pointed out to the respondents, the society’s Halloween ad did all these things,” Cousineau said.

Nachbaur could not be reached for comment.