David Eby: Vancouver park board oversteps its authority by restricting free speech
By David Eby
While some days it may seem debatable, we’re not yet in a position where government gets to decide which political messages are acceptable in public space and which aren’t.
Well, unless that space is governed by the Vancouver park board.
According to an article written by Straight editor Charlie Smith, Vancouver park board commissioner Constance Barnes says that while she and her fellow commissioners will permit anti-HST petitions in the lobby of community centres, “she doesn’t want to allow anyone with any type of petition into community centres.”
NPA commissioner Ian Robertson appears to be onside with his Vision counterpart, but might lean more towards a total prohibition on petition signature gathering in community centre lobbies. “I think there are a lot of residents out there that, despite their feelings either way on the issue, like to see their park-board facilities be a haven where they can come and relax without having to get engaged in issues of this nature,” Robertson told the Straight last month.
Whether you’re asking a fellow community centre user to borrow a quarter for the phone, complimenting a baby’s general cuteness, inviting someone to sign a petition, or simply voicing your opinion on the park board’s treatment of free speech, it doesn’t seem right that a 4-3 vote could make what you had to say to your neighbour illegal.
It doesn’t seem right either that a government official could require you to rent a back room if your conversation concerns the upcoming election, but not if your sentiments concern the weather. “Hey, that’s political talk, take it to the political room and give us $100 if you want to have that kind of conversation! It’s the law!”
While most Canadians are of the opinion that in public space we should be able to both hear and offer the opinions that we wish without government oversight, this sentiment is especially important for political speech.
For the park board to enforce a ban on political speech in commonly trafficked areas of parks, while simultaneously allowing niceties of no significant import to our democratic self-determination (although perhaps important in their own way, for example, “How about those Canucks?”) is itself an extremely political decision.
Such a remarkable anti-free speech policy marginalizes democratic citizen participation and deliberately treats the most valuable form of individual expression as inappropriate, invasive, threatening, and bad, when in fact it is the prohibition on political speech that should draw those pejoratives.
One may even see it as more problematic for the park board to implement a selective ban, where only political speech this arm of government doesn’t like is banned. When a public platform is available for speech, it must be made equally available to differing viewpoints, independent of content.
The park board simply doesn’t get to say “anti-HST petition OK, petition to impeach the Park Board, not OK.”
Canada doesn’t work like that.
The park board will be voting on June 7 about whether or not you get to say what’s on your mind in community centre lobbies, or whether they’re going to make sure you only say the things they think you should say, or only the things they agree with politically.
Here’s hoping they make the only decision the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows.
David Eby is executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association