Vision Vancouver's shaky track record when it comes to protecting free speech

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

3 comments

VanActtentcity.jpg
A large police presence can be seen at Olympic Village tent city before it was dismantled

As we head into week two of the so-called "occupy" movement and the campers get settled in at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we thought it might be worth taking a trip back in the CityCaucus.com time machine.

It's now 2009 and Vancouver is on the verge of hosting the 2010 Olympic Games. So worried was Mayor Gregor Robertson that local activists were going to embarass him during the Olympics, he introduced legislation that restricted the public's right to display signage. According to the Georgia Straight:

The bylaw bans the distribution of leaflets and similar materials on several streets and city properties. Vehicles are also forbidden to display materials that may be deemed to be of an advertising nature, except those authorized by Games organizers.

It also prohibits causing “any disturbance or nuisance interfering with the enjoyment of entertainment on city land by other persons”. Megaphones and other audio-amplifying devices are not allowed on sites designated for Olympic use. In six areas where celebratory activities will be held, like the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, people will be subject to airport-style searches.

Even COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth was concerned Robertson went too far regarding his by-law limiting free speech, but she got nowhere. The Straight reported:

Back in January, council approved several staff-recommended changes to the Vancouver Charter, subject to enabling legislation to be passed by the province. These included having the ability to take down illegal signs within a limited time and $10,000-per-day fines for violations of signage rules.

Coalition of Progressive Electors councillor Ellen Woodsworth voted against these and other proposed changes, such as giving the city the power to cover up “graffiti” on private property without notice to owners.

Woodsworth also suggested then to her fellow councillors that they direct staff to ask the province to ensure that the new regulations complied with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But even this was defeated by Vision Vancouver councillors.

Vocal anti-Olympic critics like Chris Shaw were also not impressed with the initial sign-bylaw introduced by Vision Vancouver:

What [city manager] Penny Ballem and the city council and mayor have done is they have basically subordinated my rights and the rights of the rest of the people in the city to the needs of the IOC to have a protest-free Games. 

The sign controversy wasn't the Mayor's only foray into the issue of freedom of speech. In response to a BC Court of appeal ruling regarding the Falun Gong court case, he introduced earlier this year what some believe was a draconian piece of legislation.

It was lovingly referred to by local activists as the "anti-protest by-law". The legislation confirmed you have the right to protest, but not set up overnight encampments - unless you apply for and receive the necessary permits from City Hall. [It should be noted that to date nobody at the Occupy Vancouver encampment has bothered to apply for any kind of permits - despite being required to do so by law.]

When the first draft of the new by-law was made public it proved to be a huge headache for Robertson. That's because it was forbidding protests in residential areas and was imposing hefty permit fees. Oh yeah...and there was that minor issue of the City consulting with the Chinese government.nocampingphoto.png

After a lot of complaints, Vision Vancouver eventually backed down and re-introduced a watered down version a few weeks later. However, even this revised by-law still required groups interested in setting up encampments to go through a permit process. 

The anti-protest by-law didn't even sit well with the normally Vision-friendly BC Civil Liberties organization. Here is their response to Mayor Gregor's legislation:

BCCLA says “Take Two” on City’s political structures bylaw still violates rights

The BCCLA is urging the City of Vancouver to apply to court for an extension of time to replace a bylaw that was struck down as unconstitutional by the BC Court of Appeal. This bylaw regulates “structures” and objects that are placed on sidewalks as part of demonstrations or events, like tables for petition-signing and display boards. An amended version of the proposed bylaw was rushed into public release just days after the first version was widely denounced. The BCCLA says that the new bylaw proposal is still unconstitutional and wants the City to hold off enacting a law that is sure to land back up in court.

Rob Holmes, President: “This situation smacks of the hasty passage of the controversial Olympics anti-free speech by-laws. Citizens should not have to file lawsuits in order to get the City of Vancouver to properly consider the constitutionality of its bylaws. City Council should be operating on a civic version of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.”

The BCCLA argues that the revised bylaw still unduly impairs political speech and any improvements over the original version are nullified by new problems in the revisions.

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director: “Not only is the City continuing to insist that you can’t place on a sidewalk unobtrusive, ordinary objects like a small table or your sport team’s stuffed bear mascot without a permit, you are fined $1,000 minimum for failure to get a permit for your object. To pretend that this “facilitates” speech is ludicrous. Bizarre, unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions on political expression violate free speech; full stop.”

The Globe and Mail's Gary Mason also weighed in on the controversy:

Still, I think introducing a ban on permanent protest structures in residential areas probably makes sense. Otherwise, innocent parties could be negatively affected. 

Ultimately, the new bylaw won’t restrict the right to protest in front of places such as the Chinese consulate, regardless of where it’s situated; it would just restrict the right to establish a permanent presence on nearby property. That seems fair. And we shouldn’t care one whit what the Chinese government thinks. 

It is also worth noting that when a group called VanAct tried to set up a tent city as a political protest on the grounds of the Olympic Village, the city sent in the cops. The parallels to the Occupy Vancouver protest are quite amazing - with one exception. In the case of the VanAct folks, their protest would have cost the City big bucks by hurting sales at the beleaguered Olympic Village development. The Tyee reports:

Ten housing activists were arrested during an Olympic Village protest on Saturday on suspicion of break and entering and trespassing, according to the Vancouver Police Department.

According to reports from the Vancouver Media Co-op, the 10 activists were part of an attempt to establish a tent city in an empty lot next to the beleaguered Olympic condos to send a message about their displeasure at the loss of 126 units of social housing originally promised when the Village was under construction.

As you can see, the laws in Vancouver aren't always applied equally when it comes to free speech. If you are planning to protest and it might cost the city money, then expect a heavy-handed response. Camp out in front of the Art Gallery and impact a small handful of local businesses - well that's okay by the Mayor - "indefinitely".

Despite their previous track record of "trampling people's rights", nobody within Vision Vancouver appears keen to dismantle this latest mud pit encampment. Quite the contrary. Media reports indicate city officials are providing free power and even offering to help set up gas powered generators. News 1130 interviewed one of the campers and they stated:

"We are getting electricity from the city as well," he adds. "We bring in generators and get it all set up ourselves. The city offered to pay for it. So the city's been very generous, but it's because they've offered or they have people sitting there in trucks doing nothing the entire time."

Now contrast Vancouver's Mayor to Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi to see how each elected official has been approaching their occupy protest. The Calgary Sun reports:

Friday he [Mayor Nenshi] said Olympic Plaza is a public place and “all citizens have a right to their front lawn.”

“All means all,” said Nenshi.

Late on Sunday it now appears Mayor Gregor began starting to feel the heat regarding his lack of action on the muddy encampment. Reports on Twitter were starting to emerge that he was undertaking negotiations with the squatters to see when this could all come to an end. I suspect he might be pulling the "health and safety" card very soon.

In contrast, the NPA are taking out full-page advertisements in both of the major dailies tomorrow. The ads go something like this. First Robertson brought you backyard chickens, then wheat fields on front lawns...and now a $500,000 campground in downtown Vancouver.

Gosh, isn't Vancouver politics fun! And there is still another 4 weeks or so until Election Day!

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For another interesting perspective on free speech in Vancouver as it pertains to Occupy Vancouver, you should read Nathan Crompton and Andrew Witt's post over at The Mainlander.com. Or this article by Sean Antrim about regulating political expression in a public space.

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More late breaking news from the Vancouver Sun. Ian Mulgrew will be publishing a column in tomorrow's newspaper which helps shed light on whether the Occupy campers have the right to set up their encampment. He states:

Few paid attention last week, but the B.C. Court of Appeal said it’s okay to give the squatters on the Vancouver Art Gallery lawn the bum’s rush.

While camping on city property can be justified overnight in the absence of shelter beds, during the daytime, a three-justice panel said unequivocally— forget it.

Cities have the right to regulate public space and neither the homeless nor 100 or so Occupy-movement types downtown have a free-standing right to erect tents on it.

- Post by Daniel. You can follow us on on Twitter @CityCaucus or you can "like" us on Facebook at facebook.com/citycaucus.

3 Comments

We really do have half baked individuals in our City Hall they need to be fired spending taxpayers money like this,god I hope he loses.

Not sure that the NPA wants to be pointing fingers on this one. The record is dismal across the board. The pressure that the IOC, federal and provincial governments put on us to curtail free speech and enforce a very narrow (and I think legally questionable) notion of copyright law was sickening and one reason I did not participate in any Olympic events. I did cheer our atheletes though, and enjoyed the city back in February 2010.

Steven apparently you are the only one talking on this blog... To yourself!

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