“Protest structure” bylaw changes would expand free speech, not restrict it

Tweeters and editorial writers, operating largely in a fact-free zone,  went ballistic this week on hearing reports that the City of Vancouver had “put a price on free speech” by proposing to charge “$1,200 to protesters who want to erect tables or banners to express their points of view.”

Missing was the fact that the staff report under consideration was actually proposing to expand the right of protesters to use structures, as Falun Gong did outside the Chinese consulate on Granville for nearly a decade. Use of structures would still be prohibited in residential zones, where other forms of protest remain wide open, as they always have. Everywhere else in the city, structures would be allowed with a permit.

(The residential restriction has drawn little criticism so far, although it irritates Falun Gong, which wants to camp outside the Chinese consulate, located in a residential district. The Chinese visa office downtown would not be immune to a “structure” protest.)

That demonstration came to an end when Mayor Sam Sullivan convinced council to enforce an obscure bylaw that bans structures on city property. With Sullivan’s intervention, long sought by the Chinese government, the issue became an all-out legal battle as documented in Saturday morning’s Sun by Pete McMartin

The bylaw was upheld in one court hearing but failed on appeal. The city must now change the law to ensure that its regulations do not unduly impact free speech. The deadline to do so is April 19.

Before, during and after the legal action initiated by Sullivan,  anyone who wanted to protest anywhere, including outside the Chinese consulate, could do so with banners, flags, petitions or whatever. That right remains.

(The uproar is all eerily reminiscent of the pre-2010 Games panic that saw the BC Civil Liberties Association threaten to sue the city, only to drop the action as the Games began. As we know, Vancouver sailed through the Games with charter rights intact.)

The so-called “protest fee” is in fact a proposed $1,000 refundable deposit suggested by the engineering department to cover the costs of removal of a structure, if necessary. This and other elements of the permit policy, like the requirement for a “transportation plan,” are unlikely to survive council’s review of the draft.

But the bottom line is simple: the new bylaw will lift a ban on “protest structures” that has existed for many years and was first enforced by Sam Sullivan.

The Vision Vancouver council is lifting the ban, as the court requires.