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The Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) is running an ad campaign called “Can I choose when I grow up?”, which focuses on children’s right to freedom of choice. However, on behalf of Milan Transport Agency (ATM), the advertising agency IGPDecaux refused to display the advertisements, explaining that the problem “is the content, not the image”.

The campaign

The banner of UAAR’s campaign “Can I choose when I grow up?”

On 20 November, for Universal Children’s Day, UAAR launched an online campaign called “Posso scegliere da grande?” (“Can I choose when I grow up?”). The main image of the campaign (right) shows a list of beliefs (Catholic, Atheist, Agnostic, Orthodox, Muslim, etc.) and in the middle the face of Sara, a baby who asks if she can decide when she grows up.

“Sara has no religious or non-religious beliefs”, one can read on the campaign’s website, “And she has the right to keep not having any belief until she, and only she, decides otherwise. […] UAAR wants to let her know that she has this right.”

The campaign’s main goal is to inform families that it is possible to let their children opt-out from the “Teaching of Catholic Religion” in schools (one or two hours every week!), and opt instead for a secular alternative.

The censorship in Milan

On 15 January, coinciding with the opening of public school admissions for 2018, UAAR’s campaign went live with advertisements and flyers in 54 Italian cities, from Palermo to Milan. But it is in the latter that something unexpected happened.

On 10 January, the UAAR Circle of Milan sent a request to the advertising agency IGPDecaux, which manages all fee-paying advertising spaces on the Milan tube trains, trams and buses on behalf of ATM, the Milan public transport agency. IGPDecaux agreed the timing, spaces and costs with UAAR, specifying that “obviously, since your association is behind this campaign, it will pass under ATM’s control sphere”. Two days later, IGPDecaux communicated that ATM refused to display the advertisements as it is forbidden to show “advertisements with religious contents on our means of transport”.

An advertisement of Pope’s visit in Milan on one of ATM’s buses

UAAR stressed the inconsistency of the decision, since in March 2017 Milan public transport was completely wallpapered with advertisement of Pope’s Holy Mass in Monza, a city near Milan (see image, right).

The UAAR Circle of Milan tried to propose an alternative advertisement, without some of the ‘religious’ words, as a compromise in order to abide by the ‘no religious content’ rule. However, before even seeing the alternative image, IGPDecaux replied on behalf of ATM: “It is not a matter of image, it is about the content”. Given that apparently the abundant advertisement for the Pope was approved, UAAR has requested to read the rules to which ATM is appealing, in order to verify whether there has been a substantial discrimination against its own campaign in favour of the child’s freedom of belief.

What now?

The mobile billboard circulating right now in Milan to denounce the censorship

ATM and IGPDecaux are passing the buck over to each other. The local group representing 5 Star (a political party) has formally requested to look at correspondence on the decision to block the UAAR advertisements.

Now, a mobile billboard paid for by UAAR is circulating in the streets of Milan to denounce the censorship.

“UAAR can’t circulate on Milan public transports, while the Pope can”, said Alessandra Stevan, who coordinates UAAR Circle of Milan, “This is censorship. This is discrimination.”

IHEU and UAAR respond

Roberto Grendene, UAAR’s Director of Campaigns

Roberto Grendene, UAAR’s Director of Campaigns, released the following statement:

“UAAR is going to investigate further to shed more light on what happened in Milan and to clearly asses the responsibilities of this unexpected decision.

“Still, it is worth to underline that already in 4 cities (Ancona, Padova, La Spezia, Verbania-Cusio-Ossola) our advertisements are circulating on buses of the local public transport.

“Our only concern now is to clarify what really happened and then evaluate whether or not UAAR should engage in legal proceedings”.

Gary McLelland, IHEU Chief Executive

Gary McLelland, IHEU Chief Executive

Gary McLelland, IHEU Chief Executive, said:

“There is nothing offensive or wrong about UAAR’s adverts which justifies this censorship. This advertisement does not even assert a partisan line on humanism or atheism or secularism. It is simply a plea that children be allowed the time and space to reach their own conclusions. If advertising a sermon by the Pope himself did not trigger the authority’s rule against ‘religious’ advertisements, then there is no way in the world that this should! It does not even promote a religious message or a message about religion as such. There is clearly a deep inconsistency here, in which secular, pro-human rights messages suffer from a much lower threshold for perceived breaking of the rules than advertisements which are actually religious.”

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