TransLink curbs free speech
Recent police interference with distribution of the Fire This Time activist newspaper at SkyTrain stations adds a new blot to TransLink’s spotty record with regard to charter rights.
Freedom of “thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press” is enshrined in Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In 2011, transit police ejected SkyTrain passenger Jean Wharf for refusing to remove a button on her jacket that read Fuck Yoga.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2009 that TransLink and B.C. Transit had violated the right to freedom of expression of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Federation of Students by refusing to place their ads on transit vehicles.
In 2001, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that TransLink had infringed on Ron Churchill’s rights when transit police arrested him for distributing political pamphlets at a SkyTrain station during the 2000 federal election campaign.
The case involving Churchill, a former Canadian Alliance campaign manager, prompted TransLink to change its policy to permit election campaigning and other forms of noncommercial expression on its property, provided they don’t happen in fare-paid zones or interfere with the use of the transit system.
It’s this same set of rules that members of the Fire This Time Movement for Social Justice have cited after being told by police on a number of occasions this summer to stop distributing their newspaper.
Things came to a head on August 31 when activists Thomas Davies, Shakeel Lochan, and Mike Larson were arrested by TransLink police and RCMP officers at the Metrotown SkyTrain station in Burnaby. They were released without charges.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has taken a strong interest in the case.
“It’s a classic civil-liberties, free-speech issue,” BCCLA executive director David Eby told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We think that people should be allowed to share free information as long as it’s not going to be done in a way that interferes with the use of the transit station.”
The police harassment of Fire This Time has generated outrage among activists of various inclinations. At a well-attended and animated meeting at Joe’s Café on Commercial Drive on September 11, they formed a provisional group to protect one of Canada’s fundamental freedoms. It’s called the Vancouver Committee to Defend Freedom of Expression.
Payvand Pejvack was one of the first to arrive for the evening meeting. In June, she was confronted by transit police at the Commercial Drive SkyTrain station and told she couldn’t hand out the Fire This Time paper. She successfully argued that she was following TransLink rules on the distribution of noncommercial printed material.
According to Pejvack, it was the third time she had been accosted by police while doing her distribution rounds.
“It’s clear that it’s targeting of information that we’re distributing to the people,” Pejvack told the Straight.
Alison Bodine was with the three Fire This Time activists when their group was approached by police at Metrotown Station on August 31.
In an interview before the September 11 meeting started, Bodine told the Straight: “It’s an attack on freedom of expression. It’s an attack on the basic civil and democratic right to have an opinion that’s different from the government, and to disagree with current policies of wars abroad and here against people at home, which is what the Fire This Time newspaper is all about.”
TransLink spokesperson Drew Snider doesn’t anticipate any further incidents involving Fire This Time members.
“If they’re following the rules, everything’s fine,” he told the Straight by phone.
The BCCLA’s Eby noted that Fire This Time has a range of legal options, including suing the police for wrongful arrest.
In the two videos below, a Fire This Time activist defends her right to distribute the free newspaper at Broadway-Commercial SkyTrain station.