Falun Gong in Vancouver – Photo by K. Nicoll
It’s hard to believe something of this calibre was only made publicly available one day before it goes in front of City Council.
Tomorrow, Councillors will be considering a proposal to regulate political expression by requiring permit fees and deposits totalling $1,200 for any political activity that utilizes “a structure.” The report was posted on the City website sometime within the last 24 hours.
What’s a structure you ask? It’s not specifically defined. The report mentions the Falun Gong protest in front of the Chinese consulate as a precursor to the proposed amendments. (In this, the protesters utilized a large, weatherproofed, shed of sorts. The City tried to get this structure removed and lost a court case on constitutional grounds.)
But the changes being proposed now, which will be bundled into the Street and Traffic Bylaw, go far beyond the Falung Gong situation. A close read of the newly proposed amendments, suggest the intent is to cover any “structure, object, substance or thing” used in political expression. That’s a frighteningly ambiguous statement.
Another thing — although the report initially attempts to frame the discussion in terms of “protests” (undefined) it later acknowledges that the concepts of political expression are broad and difficult to regulate. To resolve this, it proposes to amend the bylaw to cover all activities that communicate “non-commercial public expression.” Think Anti-HST tables, salmon-farming displays, anti-war vigils… anything that utilizes something more than a placard to help get the message out. (Though, frankly, don’t placards count as “things”?)
So in sum, the proposal being contemplated will set up a system to regulate “all non-commercial public expression” that utilizes “any structure, object, substance or thing.” Take a moment to read that sentence again.
Now, to be clear, the proposed amendments won’t be banning these things. The report claims to be broadly supportive of protests and political expression. But it will create some pretty interesting limitations. If your political efforts are such that you require the use of a structures or objects or substances or thing, you’ll need to get approval first. And this will be conditional – because you’ll first need to provide
- A refundable security of $1,000 for removal of the structure,
- a release and indemnity of the City
- payment of $200 application fee to cover costs of application review ($50 fee for permit renewal of same structure and location)
- A guarantee that there will be no structures (etc.etc.) on city streets between 8pm and 8am.
not to mention a formal application process, sign-off by City officials and a number of other guarantees.
Setting aside the principles of regulating political expression like this, it strikes us that $1,200 in upfront fees, the application process, and the other considerations contained herein, will prove to be a big impediment to a whole array of voices – smaller organizations, unfunded initiatives, poverty activism, grassroots tabling activities, and a spectrum of the sort of important messaging that we need in a democratic society.
Ironically, the report claims that the City’s intent is to create and “innovative program that will facilitate free political expression on City streets.”(p3) Go figure.
Another kicker – the report suggests that the proposed bylaw changes are intended to support a number of goals, including the following:
- Promoting public non commercial expression
- Preserving the city’s character
- Preventing unsightliness
- Minimizing distractions to traffic
- Protecting public safety
- Minimizing detrimental impacts on city businesses
- Minimizing interference with public utilities and transit
- Protecting the city from liability and costs
- Ensuring adequate vehicular, pedestrian and emergency access to streets
- Protecting use and enjoyment of private property
One could explore these considerations in detail, but suffice to say, it’s interesting that “unsightliness,” “distraction” and the preservation of “character” are used as justifications for something that will ultimately serve to limit expressions. After all, isn’t it exactly the point that political expression is meant to gather attention and draw it to the ‘cause’ – however unpalatable that may be?
A rationale such as is contained in the above list, reveals more than it purports. It’s an autobiography of civic anxiety. More to the point, it seems to make an entreaty to manage and sanitize any messages that might shake Vancouverites out of their everyday comfort zone.
You can read the report here. It’s going to be debated at the City Services and Budgets Meeting tomorrow, April 7, at 2:00pm.
Consider signing up to have your voice heard on this one… before you need a permit to do so.
To get on the speakers list for tomorrow’s Council meeting
- Call the City Clerk’s Office at 604.873.7276, or
- E-mail your request to email@example.com
Other details about speaking to Council can be found on the City’s website here.