Why the “gay cure” bus advertisments should run

This is where I get myself in to trouble for being a racist homophobe: I believe that a Christan group advertising its “therapy” to make gay people straight should be allowed to run its adverts. I tweeted “The ‘gay cure’ loonies have every right to to advertise on buses just as the atheists did. Free speech is for those I disagree with, too”, and many disagreed with me, so here’s a justification of my position with more than 140 characters.

The gay activist charity, Stonewall, recently ran some advertisements on 1,000 London buses which featured the slogan: “Some people are gay. Get over it!”.

A Christian group called Core Issues Trust attempted to book ads on buses in top tourist routes that read “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!”. The adverts were banned by the Mayor of London.

Core Issues says

CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression. It respects the rights of individuals who identify as ‘gay’ who do not seek change…

CORE is a Christian initiative seeking to support men and women who struggle with homosexuality, and related issues. Of particular concern to us are people who struggle to find a useful place within the church, either because local congregations find it difficult to get alongside people who haven’t yet resolved their issues, or because the church has taken a liberal perspective which undermines their desire to move away from homosexual practice and preference.…The initiative is educational in nature offering some therapeutic support as capacity to do so allows.

Homosexuality isn’t a ‘disease’ so we’re not looking for a ‘cure’.

Personally, I find this stuff pretty offensive and it seems to me that if people are struggling to balance their homosexuality and their church, they should look at changing their church rather than change their sexual orientation.

But my finding it offensive doesn’t matter at all. I support free speech— and in doing so, I must support free speech for those I disagree with.

None of the arguments for banning the Core Issues ads seem to justify censorship.

If the ads were a direct incitement to hurt gay people, then they shouldn’t be allowed. Recently three muslim men were jailed for distributing a leaflet calling for gay people to be executed.

But the Core Issues advert isn’t “hate speak”. It is certainly homophobic – which I find offensive – but you can’t ban people saying something just because other people will find it offensive. By that logic, intolerant people could have asked for the original Stonewall advert to be banned on the grounds that they find promotion of gay equality offensive.

Others suggest that the ads should be banned because it promotes a “therapy” which doesn’t work. The equivalence with homeopathy was drawn: don’t ban the practice, but forbid it being advertised as a medicine.

The trouble with that argument is that no-one knows whether the “therapy” works or not, because nobody knows whether homosexuality is nature, nurture, or conscious choice. We all know people who have experimented with homosexuality in adolescence, but subsequently settled into being straight (and one of my oldest friends is a gay man who briefly flirted with straight sex). So in this sense, it’s possible for a homophobe with a crude mode of expression to say that those people were going through a “phase” and they can “get over it”.

There are stories in the press about people like Peterson Toscano who’ve had counselling to “cure” them of being gay and it’s caused them years of psychological misery. But there are others who claim that the therapy worked – and who is anyone else to say they’re lying?

Estelle said on Twitter “think of the pain those posters will cause to closeted kids” and she’s absolutely right. Similarly, I have a daughter and I worry about what advertising does to a young woman’s body image. But you can’t ban something because it might upset someone else.

What I find most worrying is that so many people are happy to ban or censor people saying things that offend them. Everyone has a right not to be physically hurt by other people. No-one has a right to be protected from hurt feelings.

Added 16 April:

It seems that I’ve mis-expressed myself, so just to be absolutely clear: I do not support the Core Values Trust and believe its “therapy” to be poppycock. But I can’t agree with stopping them advertising. As far as I can tell from the news reports, Boris Johnson didn’t ban the adverts because they are against any rules about truthfulness in advertising, but on ideological grounds. The Telegraph quotes him as saying

London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance.

It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around London on our buses.

The Independent wrote

But London Mayor Boris Johnson ordered them to be pulled at the last minute arguing that they were offensive. He was backed by Transport for London who said the adverts were not “consistent with TfL’s commitment to a tolerant and inclusive London.”

I stand by my opinion: although I completely disagree with the message that being gay is somehow morally wrong, or that it can be “cured”. By all means, ban the advertising because it contravenes a code, but it is wrong to withdraw such advertising simply because it might upset people.

A couple of other examples of the law protecting people from being a bit upset:

22 Responses to “ Why the “gay cure” bus advertisments should run ”

Comment by Ed

But is it acceptable for an organisation (say TFL) to decide that they don’t like the sentiments in an advert and not want to be associated with it?

At what point does not being published become censorship? Surely the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to be published.

(I can see this is complicated by the fact that government figures are involved in the banning of the adverts)

Comment by David Goss

It’s tricky. I agree on the free speech point, but does free speech mean that TFL and other organisations cannot turn down advertisers they don’t like?

I, for example, would not permit these homophobes to advertise on my website. Is that wrong? If not, why is it wrong for Boris Johnson not to permit them to advertise on his buses?

Comment by Sparrk

Bruce, we talked briefly about this on twitter yesterday so I’m glad you’ve moved the discussion to somewhere we can talk in a longer form.

My position is this: not permitting CORE to use buses for an advertisement is not the same as censorship, and it is not a breach of CORE’s right to free expression. Allow me to explain.

I’m completely in favour of freedom of expression, I consider it to be a fundamental human right. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t limits to it; the traditional example is that yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre would be an unacceptable expression of free speech because of the onward harm it would cause by fostering panic. Similarly, while I may have freedom of speech that doesn’t grant me the right to acquire your phone number, call you at 3am and ramble on about how the royal family are really 8ft lizards. You’d rightly consider such expression as harassment.

Advertising, as a public means of expression, has to meet this test as well. While the ASA’s method of enforcement may be spectacularly useless, usually expressing disapproval some 6 months after a campaign runs and making the culprit promise not to run it again in the same form, it does have rules by which the decision is made. These rules are written by the Committee of Advertising Practice, or CAP. Some of them include that the advert may not offend “the average person,” and, crucially, that an advert may not make unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of the product it advertises. TfL’s advertising department is absolutely aware of these requirements – the way the system is supposed to work is that the “light touch” is applied proactively by the media, rather than retroactively by the ASA – this is only supposed to happen to adverts that slip through the cracks.

You can see one case in which this happened recently in the story Scottish government’s Edinburgh Zoo panda advert banned. In that case the controversy was that the zoo claimed the Pandas were a “gift” rather than “on loan.” So clearly the reasons for the application of the CAP code don’t have to be ideological, they can be made purely on the basis of fact.

When an advert contains claims of medical efficacy (as the CORE advert does), a greater standard of proof applies, again in order to prevent harm. This is covered in Section 12, “Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products”. Rule 1 of this section states “Objective claims must be backed by evidence, if relevant consisting of trials conducted on people.”

CORE’s adverts immediately fail on this criterion as they do not cite any medical evidence for what amounts to a psychological treatment. Further, section 12.3 states “Practitioners must have relevant and recognised qualifications,” 12.6 that “Marketers should not falsely claim that a product is able to cure illness, dysfunction or malformations,” and “Unqualified claims such as “cure” and “rejuvenation” are not generally acceptable.”

As a medically unsubstantiated practice, CORE’s therapy breaches the CAP code on at least these points and arguably several others and therefore regardless of ideology, religion or politics TfL made the correct decision in declining it. Which is not to say that ideology and politics did not play into that decision, as they clearly did.

Freedom of speech, as one of your other commenters has already pointed out, does not automatically mean freedom of promotion and this case demonstrates the limits. No-one is preventing CORE representatives from standing in Speaker’s Corner preaching this therapy, they are simply not permitting the message to run in a particular medium. Freedom of speech actually operates at State level and it cannot, within certain limits, be suppressed by private individuals or corporations (TfL’s status here is subject to some interpretation as it is a state body run independently from Government).

It is very important to reiterate that this is not a religious issue. I remember one of the pentecostal churches ran a cheesy advert for many years in the same spot at Tottenham Court Road, and no law exists to prevent religious adverts, even in cases where evidence exists that the religion causes serious harm (I won’t name them but I’m sure you can gues$ which one I mean).

In this case CORE simply joins Ryanair, Nintendo, Edinburgh Zoo and many other perfectly secular entities in producing material which does not comply with CAP rules. They would not be subject to legal sanction should they publish this claim in other forms, such as an opinion piece or interview in a national newspaper. Their freedom of speech is unaffected, and their message is not censored in the sense they remain free to disseminate it by other means.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to discuss this at a more appropriate length (and apologies for writing such a long comment). And PS I love your comment preview mechanism!

Comment by SilentImp

Censorship of any kind is bad.
Cigarets? Alcohol? Drugs? Sexual perversions? History?
It may be offensive, yes.
It may push you or your close ones to some decisions, yes.
Better teach yourself and you children’s to think with their own mind and make informed decision, than rely on censorship and law restrictions.

Comment by Rene Dudfield

People die from hate speech. That advertisement could lead to someone dying.

Do you believe in free speech even if it results in death? I see that you don’t like spam, and are happy to censor spam, but you are not ok with censoring hate speech causing death.

You can ban something that upsets other people; you are wrong there.

Comment by Ciaran McNulty

I think in the same way that an ad making false heath claims about nutrition can be banned on public health grounds, ads making false claims about mental health (in this case telling people that they have a problem that doesn’t exist, and offering to ‘cure’ it) should be banned on the same grounds.

Comment by Sparrk

…And as “state body run independently from Government” what I actually mean is “run independently from Central Government,” as TfL is in fact directly controlled by the Mayor. That still doesn’t change the relationship between Freedom of Expression and the CAP regulations though.

Comment by Adrian Simmons

I think there are two weaknesses to your argument here. The first is that you’re presuming a straight/gay dichotomy in sexuality, as though bisexuality doesn’t exist. It’s not hard to imagine that a bisexual could think they were gay and then find otherwise, or that a bisexual could settle into a long term monogamous relationship that just happens to be heterosexual. In both cases they could easily think of themselves as ‘cured’ or having made a ‘choice’ not to be gay without their underlying sexuality having changed at all. The plural of anecdotes is not evidence, as is often said.

Sexuality is not black and white, there’s a gradient between straight and gay.

The second issue I have is that you claim “no one knows whether homosexuality is nature, nurture or concious choice”. I was under the impression that some scientific studies *had* shown physiological differences between the the brains of homosexual’s and straights. Nature or nurture is perhaps still up for debate, or more correctly evo-devo, but I’m fairly sure ‘choice’ isn’t.

Comment by moimikey

“The trouble with that argument is that no-one knows whether the “therapy” works or not, because nobody knows whether homosexuality is nature, nurture, or conscious choice”

that I absolutely disagree with. i never chose to like dick, nor did my upbringing have anything to do with it either. can’t really assume that Omar Sharif Jr. was nurtured to be gay in a family like his or Oscar Wilde, or Alan Turing, or Alexander the Great, or Virginia Woolf, or Walt Whitman, or Michaelangelo, or Julius Caesar, et al.

Comment by Bruce


But you aren’t everybody, are you? The core people don’t (afaik) claim to be able to help everyone. That’s the trouble – your personal experience isn’t proof that their counselling works for no-one, and they have people who say it worked for them.

Rene, I wrote in the post that I’m opposed to hate speech that incites people to violence. But these ads don’t. I suppose it’s possible that an ad for beer could encourage someone to drink to excess then drive and kill someone. Should we ban beer ads too because they could result in death?

Comment by Sparrk

Bruce, when it comes to advertising medical treatment, a different standard applies. Efficacy must have been proven using recognised techniques – usually a double-blind test or similar. It’s not enough for people who have experienced the treatment to “feel” cured. Any advert which does not meet this criteria fails to meet section 12 of the CAP code which governs whether or not a media holder should accept an advertisement. This is also the same section which prevents prescription drugs being advertised direct to consumers, which no-one considers to be a breach of free expression.

Comment by Sparrk

Jeez, Bruce. In a debate about free speech it would be nice if your site didn’t trap every comment longer than 2 sentences in its moderation filter.

Comment by Sparrk

Also, there are absolutely standards that apply to beer ads as well. Off the top of my head, they may not link consumption to increased attractiveness, they may not encourage excessive consumption, and there are *all* sorts of limitations around showing how the beer itself is consumed. Thousands of ads are rejected by media holders every year without it being considered a free speech issue.

Comment by Ebs

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe Christianity – every dogmatic superstition, really – must be squelched for the good of humanity.

Ban them. Remove religious rights, squeeze out the Religious Right, and don’t look back.

Comment by Ian P

> “Similarly, I have a daughter and I worry about what advertising does to a young woman’s body image. But you can’t ban something because it might upset someone else.”

Plenty of people are trying to ban such a thing. Possibly the same sort of people.

I agree with you Bruce, but mainly because letting this advert run is more damaging to ‘CORE’ than banning it.

Comment by Mathias

I agree with Bruce. It’s amusing that guys here actually think it’s possible to design a system with an option to ban hate speech that wouldn’t get abused.

“At what point does not being published become censorship? Surely the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to be published.”

Well, for a private organisation this would be true. The TFL is not, so it has to be very concerned about discriminating.

Comment by Sparrk

To respond to your update, it seems to me that really there are two questions to answer. Can you ban an advert because it offends? And should you ban an advert because it offends?

The answer to the first is absolutely yes. Again within the regulatory framework of the ASA an advert can be “banned” by rejection at the point of the media holder, or retroactively “banned” by censure if the advert attracts complaints which the ASA upholds under the CAP rules.

Section 4.1 of the CAP rules states (with emphasis added) “Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.”

Under the existing legal framework which binds advertisers, media holders and government, any advert which causes offence “under prevailing standards” (which we’ll get into in a bit) should be rejected by media holders. This is exactly what Boris, as head of the media holder TfL, has done, and it is the legal basis on which CORE will challenge the decision. This is the ASA system, which is broken in many other ways, working for once as it is supposed to.

So, onto the second question, should an advert be banned for offence? Yes. It’s very important to note that this is a different question from “does a person have the right not to be offended?” to which the answer is an emphatic no. It is absolutely right that any opinion can be held and expressed. What is in question is whether it therefore follows that it is right for that opinion to be expressed in all settings and to all audiences – as Philip Pullman put it, “nobody has a right never to be offended.”

But the lack of a right not to be offended is often wrongly interpreted as the lack of a right not to have offence forced upon one, whereas what it actually means is the lack of a right to suppress that which a person finds offensive. But a lack of suppression is not commensurate with an absolute right to freedom of display.

Outdoor advertising is naturally exposed to a very large and broad audience; essentially anyone who is sighted and outdoors. That means it is subject to a very broad interpretation of “prevailing standards.” In particular it must consider its impact on those below the age of majority. I think this is perfectly fair; would you be happy with young children seeing adverts for Ben Dover’s Schoolgirl Sluts 14 on the side of the 521? Again, this is not to say that Ben Dover’s work shouldn’t be available, nor that it shouldn’t be advertised in the appropriate places. It’s simply a question of placement and audience, as the ASA regulations state.

Much as I hate to fall back on the “think of the children” argument, I hope at this point we agree that by taking this to an extreme, the point is demonstrated that some limits need to exist on outdoor advertising. But those limits can be applied in a way which does not affect an entity’s right to hold or express a potentially offensive message in other media, such as a grumble mag for Ben Dover or, say, The Daily Mail for CORE.

As an aside, content-wise The Daily Mail and all other national newspapers save the Star are in fact bound only by the voluntary PCC code of practice. This code was in fact written largely by Paul Dacre, editor of The Daily Mail. The Star elected to opt out because the PCC code, lightweight as it is, does prevent a paper from simply making facts up and using them as the front-page splash. Which is the Star’s key editorial policy. The PCC code specifically permits articles which are discriminatory and offensive, as long as they do not name individuals of the group being discriminated against; hence Jan Moir’s Stephen Gately piece attracted censure but articles decrying nameless and faceless “immigrants” go unchecked. I digress, but I hope this digression demonstrates that media exist beyond advertising with looser regulation and more scope for discussion of controversial subjects.

So to return to advertising, the question becomes at what point does a message become too offensive to display in advertising? This brings us to the murky standards of what constitutes “prevailing standards” in a liberal democracy, and at this point we have to slay the ugly beast of the false equivalence.

It is tempting to suggest that because every moral position naturally has an opposite that can be argued, both moral positions have equivalence that can be determined by argument. In this case the moral position is that “Because the Stonewall advert may have offended people, The CORE advert which may offend people should also be allowed to run.” But this does not take into account the rights which we in a liberal democracy hold to be inalienable (through domestic and EU Human Rights laws – the same ones the BNP are always griping about, which should tell you something about the laws’ validity). Holding that the right to express one’s sexual orientation free from persecution is one of those rights, we now recast the argument as being between people who are offended by the expression of a basic human right, and those who are offended by an implied *breach* of that human right. In other words, one offended group and one message runs counter to the laws of the land from which the prevailing standards are partly derived. Hence even if exactly 50% of this country were supportive of homosexuality and the other 50% not, there would still not be equivalence between the positions because of the inclusion of the law in defining prevailing standards.

In this way the prevailing standards both derive from and influence mass opinion. If in a liberal democracy we want to see equality between all people regardless of (to return to the CAP code which not incidentally states) “race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age” then it is absolutely the right position to prevent messages running counter to this equality to be given the implied authority of being advertised on publicly-owned property like TfL’s buses. Discussions about those rights are absolutely welcome in other media where such measures as right-to-reply and/or opt-in participation.

And if you’ll allow me a moment of tinfoil hattery, I suspect CORE knows that as much as anyone else does. They put out a press release about the ad knowing that someone from TfL’s outdoor display agency would reject the ad under CAP’s rules and CORE could make a big song and dance about being denied their freedom of expression, even as the “banned” ad illustrated a thousand news stories. They must be delighted that Boris has waded in and made a statement evoking the most emotive, most obvious and most arguable section of the CAP code instead of Section 12, which is most applicable and would do most to protect the vulnerable people it is aimed at.

CORE must be delighted to have achieved the oxygen of publicity without even having to pay for the ads to run.

Comment by lucideer

You use alcohol advertising as a counter-example against Rene’s “could result in death” argument. Would you say the same of tobacco advertising?

I may be getting into a slightly separate debate here (whether alcohol be treated similarly to tobacco, given that it is a statistically significant attributed cause of death), but whatever your stance on either of the three (tobacco -vs- alcohol -vs- gay hate-speech), surely it’s a matter of degrees and “where to draw the line” rather than a simple black and white free-speech issue.

Unless you’re for re-legalising tobacco advertising …

Comment by Sparrk

Also (and sorry to bang on again) it’s worth noting that the ASA is a self-regulatory organisation; like any such body the standards it applies are those which it believes are acceptable to the public, without being overly restrictive to their industry. Rule 4 governing offence is therefore the industry’s interpretation of what constitutes offence, rather than a definition imposed by the State.

Comment by Steve K.

Bruce, I always loved your non-technical opinions you posted here. And I love this one too.

The ability to communicate is the most wonderful thing of the universe I can imagine. I am always terrified when someone tries to restrict it.