By Barbara Brown

HAMILTON, Ont. March 31, 2008 – Hamilton Right to Life has complained to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, claiming the city trampled on its freedom of expression by yanking pro-life ads from bus shelters.

The complaint filed this week names the City of Hamilton, transit director Don Hull, general manager of public works Scott Stewart and Councillor Brian McHattie, who asked for the ads to come down after his office heard from upset residents.

Peter Boushy, a Hamilton lawyer who sits on the local Right to Life’s board of directors, called the silencing of advertising on the abortion issue “patently undemocratic.”

Freedom of expression was enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said.

“The posters are simply trying to inform the public that the unborn have a right, a human right, to life,” Boushy said.

“If the city doesn’t reverse its decision, I can promise you we will legally pursue this issue with the utmost vigour. The process will be long, and it will be costly, but we are prepared, in the words of St. Paul, to ‘fight the good fight.'”

The city contracts bus shelter advertising to an outside firm, CBS Outdoor, which follows taste guidelines set by a national committee.

In December, Right to Life submitted artwork and slogans for five anti-abortion posters to the advertising firm, which approved the ads and returned a contract for a Right to Life board member to sign.

Later that month, the group sent an initial cheque for $1,060 to CBS Outdoor for the placement of five ads.

The total value of the contract was $2,583 for the posters to be placed in five shelters for a period of eight weeks.

In mid-January, CBS Outdoor’s national account manager, Norm Zenglein, contacted the group and cancelled the contract.

According to an internal e-mail referred to in materials filed with the commission, CBS Outdoor received a formal request from Stewart of the city’s public works department to pull down the posters.

McHattie declined to comment on the human rights complaint because he has not yet been notified by the commission.

Phil Homerski, a spokesperson for the public works department, said the matter was being referred to the city’s legal department.

He said city staff would not respond because no one had seen the complaint.

According to the materials filed, Father Ted Slaman, president of Hamilton Right to Life, was advised by transit director Hull that the decision was made after “less than a handful of complaints.”

Boushy said the group also had a contract with a different advertising agency retained by the city to put its posters on seven buses for a month.

But that agreement was also called off.

The pro-life group cites an informal poll conducted by The Hamilton Spectator regarding the city’s controversial decision to pull the ads. Of the 92 responses from the public, 70 said the city should not have removed the posters.

Right to Life members say their posters did not promote hatred or contempt for any individual or organization and were merely “an expression of a particular viewpoint.”

The group complains its human rights were infringed, and that it was denied equal treatment and the right to contract on equal terms because of discrimination against its principles and beliefs.

© The Hamilton Spectator, March 29, 2008