Melbourne’s Yarra Trams : Anti-speciesist advertising and the right to freedom of expression

by Dr Jeanette Rowley

Yarra Trams in Melbourne have cancelled a campaign to promote animal equality planned by Colorado-based activists ‘Be Fair Be Vegan’. Yarra argued that its advertising cannot show images that depict violence against animals, demean them or feature wording that promotes or implies violence against them. Yarra’s guidelines also stipulate that it cannot take advertising campaigns that are political or activist. The campaign was to feature images of nonhuman animals on the side of a 5-car tram, and pro-vegan messages, such as ‘See them for who they really are, not what we force them to be. All prejudice is learned, it’s time to unlearn speciesism‘.

Be Fair Be Vegan explain that various media organisations declined to be involved with their campaign and that their promotional material was already significantly moderated by the Outdoor Media Association. Yarra cancelled at the last minute, stating that they require further changes to be made to the images.

Clearly, those who wish to secure anti-speciesist advertising are subject to widespread, illogical advertising policies.  There is a valid discussion to be had about the political and activist nature of what is commonly and routinely accepted as within advertising guidelines. Every day, in all forms of media, images of living and dead nonhuman animals and their body parts, along with descriptive text that denies the reality of their experience, are accepted by advertising organisations to promote them as nothing more than ‘food’. Visual experiences of their dead, and sometimes living, bodies, in the most despicable contexts, are unavoidable. This practice demeans and denigrates nonhuman animals and represents the most unimaginable, off-the-scale violence inflicted on sentient beings. It represents the original violence of their exclusion from human rights: the well-known universal project to target suffering and establish the protective rights of others by prohibiting arbitrary power.

But, human rights also include the universal right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is very closely linked with the right to freedom of conscience. They go hand in hand to ensure that people benefit from democracy. The right to freedom of expression is an important right that allows vegans to present to the majority their convictions, and the suffering of nonhuman animals.

The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas promotes the idea that we cannot escape the fact that we witness the suffering of others and that we are forced to respond to their unspoken question “what will you do now that you have seen my suffering?” Levinas argues that witnessing the other’s suffering is the moment of ethical awareness and that the correct thing to do is to assist them, present their suffering, speak up for them and let their dismissed and ignored voices be heard. Isn’t this what vegan anti-speciesists do – attend to an inescapable duty of conscience and speak for the vulnerable, marginalised, voiceless, abused and appropriated sentient beings? For Levinas, the ethical moment of answering the unspoken question of the suffering other is the foundation of rights. It represents the right of the other to be included in measures to facilitate emancipation.

Combined, the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression allows us to live according to our conscience, express our ethical opening and speak for the others who we know are suffering. The right to freedom of conscience allows us to bring the suffering of nonhuman animals to the majority and the democratic process to demand that they be respected and granted their basic rights. The right to freedom of expression is broad; it includes being lawfully permitted to provoke debate and challenge others about their beliefs and practices. It is permissible to shock and upset people, to offer a robust challenge to the status quo, to force those with deep convictions and beliefs to justify them in the strongest, rational terms and to contest, in the interests of justice and human social and ethical evolution, the cultures of those who cannot justify their oppressive and violent, dogma. Just because the majority may be offended it does not make them exempt from the rule. In fact, it means the rule is even more important.

The problem is, of course, that prejudicial systems always have mechanisms that protect and maintain the prejudice. In the case of nonhuman animals, we see that the state can draw on the concept of legitimate interference, grounded by legal rules, to hinder our dissemination of the vegan message. The law will be promoted and defended on the grounds that it is neutral, reasonable and proportional. But doesn’t this raise the question of what is reasonable and proportional in a society that denies the right to life and imposes a blanket exclusion of nonhuman animals from legal protection and justice?

Yarra Trams have violated a most basic and fundamental human right. On what legitimate and objective grounds can its decision stand? Can its policies really be said to be justified? Would the advertising cause the public transport to become unsafe? How can its decision to reject the advertising be seen as reasonable and proportional? These questions have already been asked in Canada. In this case, it was acknowledged that advertising on buses has become a widespread and effective means for conveying messages to the general public and that by refusing to allow what was considered political speech, the authorities placed an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression.

Similarly, under the right of freedom of expression, the European Court of Human Rights has held that the publication of explicit, brutal and graphic facts about seal hunting are permissible because they constitute a vital public interest in ensuring an informed public debate over a matter of local and national, as well as international, interest. It has confirmed that matters concerning nonhuman animal welfare are in the public interest to the extent that restrictions on the right to freedom of expression are significantly limited.

Our demand for global prohibition on the censorship of truthful representations of nonhuman animal exploitation is grounded by their moral rights, our natural human tendency to identify with suffering, the principle that we should be free to speak in order to bring the plight of others to the democracy, and existing regional human rights case law concerning the right to freedom of expression in matters concerning animal abuse.