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Olympic rules may hurt free speech: BCCLA

VANCOUVER - City council will be voting this week on an Olympian package of bylaw changes which the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) says would restrict freedom of speech.

On Tuesday, Vancouver city council will consider an omnibus package of temporary changes to laws regulating building, land, licensing, graffiti, noise, street and traffic, vending, taxis, zoning and development and the distribution of publications.

The measures would be effective for three months, from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2010 in large areas of the city that include Games venues, live sites, SkyTrain stations and residential neighbourhoods.

BCCLA executive director David Eby said the amendments would make it illegal for pizzeria leaflets, corner store sandwich boards and handouts of free newspapers, like 24 hours.

“It is completely bizarre to me that the city would be attempting to restrict free expression in this way, even if it’s commercial speech,” Eby said. “City of Vancouver needs to have the best interests of its citizens and its local businesses at heart and not the best interests of the International Olympic Committee.”

However, city manager and VANOC director Penny Ballem says the package of bylaws is “critical” for hosting the Olympics.

The broad amendments cover 10 categories and would either relax or restrict activities for the first three months of 2010 in wide areas around Olympic and Paralympic competition, training, support and celebration venues.

The bylaws would, for example:

  • Allow temporary buildings at VANOC sites and civic live sites;
  • Allow round-the-clock deliveries and early morning and late night garbage removal;
  • Allow amplified music and public address systems until midnight and patios to open until 1 a.m.;
  • Enable 24-hour outdoor radio and TV broadcasts;
  • Mandate graffiti removal from private property and construction fences;
  • Close streets near venues and for Olympic lanes;
  • Ban taxi advertising but allow suburban taxis to pick-up fares in the city.
  • Ban weapons, luggage and megaphones at or near live sites, where attendees would be subject to airport-style security checkpoints and surveillance cameras;

Unlicensed vending and distribution of advertising would also be banned.

The city's report on the proposal, by assistant Olympic operations manager Paul Henderson, claims the bylaw changes are critical to the Games’ success for transportation and security planning and to prevent advertising by non-Games’ sponsors.

“Advertising materials with commercial content are the focus of the proposed by-law changes regulating the distribution and display of advertising materials,” said the report. “The proposed changes, which are limited in time and location, will have no impact on freedom of political expression or the right to lawful protest.”

Vision Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs said most residents won’t notice any difference because the bylaws are “designed to facilitate a smooth Games, especially for businesses and people in the downtown core.”

He denied council is trying to prevent the distribution of free newspapers, such as 24 hours. The VANOC sponsor roster includes the Canwest newspaper chain and the Globe and Mail.

“Advertising and free speech are often stuck together, but they don’t really fit together in the sense that we’re trying to control free speech; that’s not the objective here,” Meggs said. “The (bylaw) wording may seem rather broad but it’s certainly no intention to stop the publication of a newspaper or interfere with it.”

The BCCLA's Eby is not convinced.

“Political messages that are in favour of the games, opposed to the games, whatever, by sponsors or non-sponsors -- it’s not up to (city council) to restrict speech,” Eby said. “It seems to discriminate against the very small businesses that really help Vancouver be the city that it is.”

The Olympic package will be tabled Tuesday. Citizens have requested to speak, so the vote may be delayed until Thursday.

Even more bylaw changes could be coming in the fall when the legislature moves on proposed Vancouver Charter amendments that were tabled by city council Jan. 20. There will also be changes to the Ticket Offences bylaw.

Bob Mackin reports for Vancouver 24 hours.

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