Posted by: VPSN | April 6, 2011

City moves to regulate “any structure, object, substance or thing” used for political expression

Falun Gong in Vancouver

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.

Addendum

To get on the speakers list for tomorrow’s Council meeting

  1. Call the City Clerk’s Office at 604.873.7276, or
  2. E-mail your request to mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca

Other details about speaking to Council can be found on the City’s website here.

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Responses

  1. What instantly came to my mind while reading this was: Critical Mass.

    That uses a “thing” (bicycle), can often go after 8pm and is protesting for cycling awareness. Might I require a $1200 permit to ride my bike with some friends?

  2. “Consider signing up to have your voice heard on this one… before you need a permit to do so.”

    Yes, I would like to, but I am not clear where I should sign up?

  3. This is the stuff of tyrants. Is it any surprise that the most secretive Council in Canada decides it needs to regulate political activity? Very scary.

  4. This smacks of Orwellian double-talk. It is an extremely wide-ranging and problematic bylaw that was admitedly initiated in response to one very specific situation, the Falun Gong protest on the boulevard outside the Chinese consulate, which harmed no-one and didn’t interfere with pedestrian or vehicular traffic It isn’t as if the lack of a bylaw is leading to a rash of such structures resulting in the problems it would supposedly prevent or regulate. It appears that this is all a result of pressure applied to the city and province by the despotic government of China, whose cronies are busy buying up Vancouver, making it unaffordable to people who have to actually work for a living (rather than sit back and rake in sweatshop profits). It is no coincidence that the most expensive cities in the world in terms of cost of housing relative to income–Hong Cong, Vancouver and Sidney– are also the top targets for wealthy investors from Mainland China. Vancouver property owners, especially real estate speculators and developers, also profit mightily and make generous political contributions to Vision Vancouver to ensure that their interests continue to be served. Can you imagine our governments going to this much trouble and expense to prevent this outside the consular facilities of Egypt or Guatamala?

    This is by no means the first time that this council has posted controversial staff reports and agenda items at unnaceptably short notice. It reduces media exposure, makes it difficult for citizens to consider the implications or mount timely and effective opposition.

  5. Another important point to highlight (from the report):

    Location: “One of the more significant restrictions in the by-law amendment is that structures cannot be erected in an area adjacent to property zoned for residential purposes. This is intended to apply to residential zoning districts and multiple family dwellings which have residential units at ground level, but not to buildings which contain commercial at grade and residential above. This ensures that purely residential areas maintain a quiet and pleasant residential character as well as preserve the aesthetic appearance of the street, consistent with Council policies and as reflected in the Zoning and Development By-law.”

    Translation: Our benevolent Big Brothers and Sisters have determined, without even having to consult the citizens they apparently work on behalf of – because they know our hearts and minds so well! – that of utmost importance to us all is the maintainence of a “quiet and pleasant” character where we live! We are so lucky to be so loved and respected.

    And remember, we are *still* permitted expression that does “not build, construct, place, maintain, occupy, or cause to be built, constructed, placed, maintained or occupied in any street, any structure, object, substance, or thing” in residential areas and other restricted areas.

    In another show of Their obvious care and concern, we *still* have access to the 300 sign-posts around the city where posters can be placed. You know, the ones managed by the poster companies and reserved for concert posters, sales offers, and event listings.

    And that’s not even mentioning the Herculean effort our kind and thoughtful city planners have made to accomodate expression with the following:

    “In an effort to increase the ability of the public to communicate non-commercial expression on structures on streets, it is proposed that the Engineering Department install large freestanding cylinders at a number of high visibility areas around the City. Each of these structures will provide approximately 5 square metres of area for placement of larger posters and other expressive material. The cylinders will be placed strategically on City sidewalks in areas which will maximise public exposure to the message, while balancing the needs for public safety and other competing uses.”

    There would perhaps be five of these new structures – five! That increases the total allowable space for free expression to 305 controlled cylinders – a nearly 1.7% increase in space!!! Praise their blessed souls!

    Our beloved Big Brothers and Sisters are so generous and considerate! They have left us free to carry on with our lives without worry or fear of intrusion from non-commercial interests. Why all the concern?

  6. Not only patently illegal and unenforceable, but morally bankrupt.

    Such efforts to stifle public association and debate and “manage” social and political expression are reminiscent of 1984…the George Orwell book, not the year. With voter turnout at barely on third in Vancouver, political disengagement is threatening our democracy. Laws like this–including the temerity to suggest such a one–are the reason.

    The public is realizing increasingly that “their” City does not want to hear from the people…ever.

    Where is our Tahrir Square? Why do we not even have a place to protest, even if we developed the will? We are now about to be hounded out of City Council Chambers, and we have nowhere to go.

    Where is the Square?!


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