Olympics critic Chris Shaw doesn’t trust Vancouver city council. He’s not taking the city’s word that it will change a controversial bylaw in order to protect freedom of speech and expression during the 2010 Games. And that’s the reason why he’s not withdrawing just yet the charter challenge that he and another activist filed against the municipal regulation that restricts signs and advertising.
Shaw said that if council did not want legislation that would enable municipal employees of Vancouver, Richmond, and Whistler to enter homes and private properties to take down unauthorized signs, it should have told the provincial government just that. On October 29, after receiving royal assent, Bill 13, an omnibus legislation that includes amendments to the city charters of the three Olympic hosts, became law.
The city has promised that it doesn’t plan to take advantage of the severe penalties provided for under the new provincial law for signage violations. These include fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for six months.
But according to the UBC professor and neuroscientist, council’s actions don’t make a lot of sense.
“Why would they give themselves ammunition if they’re not intending to use it?” Shaw asked the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They say a lot of things about the municipal bill, saying they don’t intend to enforce some of the restrictions, they don’t intend to put us in protest zones. At the same time, why create a law if it’s just there as a book stop? There’s a reason it’s there.”
The city has filed its statement of defence on the suit brought forward by Shaw and Alissa Westergard-Thorpe before the B.C. Supreme Court on October 17, the same day the provincial government introduced Bill 13 in the legislature.
In its three-page declaration received by the court on October 28, the city states that the suit is “premature and unnecessary” because council will consider amendments to Bylaw No. 9908, also known as the 2010 Winter Games Bylaw, before the Olympics. (Bill 13 legally enabled this bylaw.)
However, Shaw said that he will consider withdrawing the case only if the changes are sufficient to safeguard civil liberties. “We’re not going to suspend it on their good wishes,” he said.
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.
Councillor Geoff Meggs maintained when council passed the bylaw that it asked staff to come back with a clarification of commercial and political expression. He stressed that the bylaw’s intention was to control unauthorized commercial or business advertising and not to limit civil liberties.
“That has always been the focus, but it wasn’t clear enough to satisfy some people, so we will clarify it further,” Meggs told the Straight in a phone interview. The Vision Vancouver councillor said he expects revisions to be adopted this month.
Westergard-Thorpe is waiting to see what amendments council will make to the bylaw it passed on July 23, 2009. “I find it interesting that they didn’t take the opportunity to clarify it in July when they requested the powers and people made submissions”¦about the civil-liberties implications,” Westergard-Thorpe told the Straight.
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.
On November 2, Woodsworth told the Straight that she continues to have significant concerns about the Olympics bylaw. After all, she noted, the Olympics are funded by taxpayers, and the people have the right to speak about an event they’re paying for.