Proposed Vancouver public expression bylaw criticized as "unduly onerous"
A proposed bylaw regulating structures used for public expression is being criticized by groups including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which is calling the new measures “unduly onerous”.
Under proposed changes to the Street and Traffic By-law, people using structures for non-commercial public expression would have to make a $1,000 deposit and submit a $200 non-refundable application fee.
Other restrictions under the proposed bylaw include prohibiting the use of structures for public expression in residential zones, restricting protests with structures to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and limiting structure permits to one per block.
The bylaw is a result of a B.C. Court of Appeal decision that ruled an injunction obtained by the City of Vancouver to remove a Falun Gong hut in front of the Chinese consulate on Granville Street was unconstitutional. The city was given six months, until April 19, to change the bylaw.
Falun Gong legal representative Clive Ansley told Vancouver city council Thursday (April 7) the proposed bylaw in its current form will “guarantee another lawsuit on behalf of my clients".
Ansley said the restrictions for residential areas would constitute an “absolute blanket prohibition” on protests involving structures in front of the Chinese consulate.
“It’s illogical and it’s unacceptable... that Canadians can’t exercise their freedom of expression fully outside the offices of a foreign government,” he told council.
Councillors heard the Chinese consulate was one of three parties that were briefed on the bylaw, a statement that drew criticism from Ansley and COPE councillor David Cadman.
Ansley called it "disgraceful and indefensible" that the city should consult with a foreign government on "the extent to which Canadians' freedom of expression should be curtailed".
City staff said the consulate was briefed as the owner of the property. The proposed bylaw was also discussed with the Falun Gong and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).
The BCCLA's policy director Micheal Vonn, who was among the speakers to address council Thursday, said the $1,200 cost required to erect temporary structures would be prohibitive to most groups organizing protests.
“Quite often people who are demonstrating in public space are not people who are loaded,” Vonn said in an interview following the bylaw discussion.
“Certainly most of the demonstrations that I can point to that are looking at these kinds of issues deal with homelessness, deal with poverty, deal with a whole raft of issues in which the whole idea of $1,200 is tear-makingly ludricrous.”
“To say it’s prohibitive is obvious, and that we actually had to have the discussion about whether or not that constitutes a restriction is absurd.”
Vonn noted the bylaw’s definition of “structures” would include such objects as a table set up for gathering petition signatures, and that the proposed requirements would also oblige those using any kind of structure to complete a traffic management plan.
"If you want to put up your table to have your petition on some kind of sidewalk, you better have $1,200 up front, $200 of which you’re not going to get back, in order for the permission to be granted for your privilege of political speech in public space," said Vonn.
Scott Bernstein of Pivot Legal Society said the current bylaw would apply to homeless people erecting tents on city boulevards.
“The way this bylaw is constructed is there’s a blanket prohibition on structures, substances... and then they start carving out exceptions,” Bernstein said in an interview. “So we’re concerned primarily about the fact that council is now going to entrench this unconstitutional blanket prohibition.”
Bernstein said the bylaw should specify that it does not apply to a homeless person in a tent on city streets, if they are not obstructing or causing a safety problem.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said in an interview following the council meeting that he’s “really concerned” if the new bylaw would have any potential impact on homeless people.
“We had questions on that matter today, and there’s still answers needed to clarify whether there is potential impact and how the city does the right thing here to ensure people’s right to protest and that homeless people don’t end up adversely impacted by new regulation,” he said.
According to City Engineer Peter Judd, the proposed bylaw “does not in any way affect people’s right to protest.”
Staff said under current bylaws, non-commercial structures used for public expression are illegal.
“There is nothing in this report that restricts anything that people are currently allowed to do,” he said.
Council decided to reconvene to discuss the proposed bylaw on the morning of April 19.