3 min

City’s Olympic plans could violate free speech

Activists concerned about new bylaws

Free speech advo-cates say the city’s security plans for the 2010 Winter Olympics will hurt freedom of expression in Vancouver.

“The bylaws carve out extensive public zones in which the city can dictate massive security screenings and draconian curtailment of free expression,” says Rob Holmes, president of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

“These laws are ripe for constitutional challenge for violation of freedom of expression, association, assembly, security of the person and the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.”

The bylaws contain provisions to remove newspaper boxes from within 100 metres of Olympic venues for fear they may contain bombs. They also prohibit any activity that causes a disturbance that could affect the enjoyment of an Olympic event.

All of this in addition to the proposal by Olympic security experts to build unfenced “free speech areas” at each competition venue and near the Vancouver Games main media centre.

Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang defended the provision removing newspaper boxes, saying terrorists could use the boxes and trash bins to hide bombs.

“They were used for bombs and explosive devices in the past,” he said.

In a meeting of councillors in chambers Jul 23, several councillors and the city manager repeatedly talked about the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing.

During those Games, three pipe bombs were placed in a knapsack under a bench. Within 20 minutes of its discovery, the knapsack exploded, shooting shrapnel and nails into the crowd. Two people died and 111 were wounded.

Vancouver’s Deputy Chief Const Steve Sweeney said police officers will be checking newspaper boxes and trash bins outside the exclusion zones.

“They will be our first line of attack,” he said. “Removal of boxes is standard practice for events like this.”

Deedee Corradini was mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah when it hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002.

“I don’t remember doing anything like that,” she says.

But says Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs maintains the bylaws are required. “Anywhere somebody could deposit something would have to be removed.”

That could include trashcans and mailboxes, he says.

Meggs is adamant that council had to walk a fine line to ensure the safety of the city and the Games — while ensuring that Charter obligations for free speech and assembly are still met.

As a result of council’s decision to pass the bylaws, newspaper boxes will be prohibited within the Olympic zones for four months starting Jan 1.

Banned papers will include Xtra West, The Georgia Straight, The Westender, Metro and 24 Hours among others, says lesbian councillor Ellen Woodsworth, who opposed the bylaws.

24 Hours publisher Phillip Tan says publishers have not been informed which boxes will need to be removed.

Xtra editorial director Matt Mills says Xtra West will be available, boxes or no boxes.

He says it became apparent several years ago when the city cracked down on the Falun Gong protests outside the Peoples’ Republic of China consulate at 17th and Granville St that a sanitization of the city was coming.

“This is just a continuation of that and it’s horrifying. Is the costs of having the Olympics in the city squelching freedom of expression and sanitizing any idea that is controversial? Is it worth it?

“If we have to remove all of our cultural markings from the city just to have an Olympics then perhaps the Olympics are inherently dangerous,” Mills says.

City manager Penny Ballem says the security measures are aimed at ensuring an enjoyable experience for people visiting Vancouver.

Woodsworth asks how limiting the distribution of newspapers from diverse communities will allow visitors to access the city’s multicultural offerings.

The bylaws include a variety of measures. They prohibit the use of megaphones or luggage being brought onto city land at Games time. They ban causing any disturbance or nuisance that interferes with other peoples’ enjoyment of entertainment on city land. They allow for airport-style security measures, closed circuit TV monitoring and searches of any person, bag or luggage on city land.

And, in some cases, the bylaws allows the mayor, the city manager and the city engineer to permit or have people comply with requirements they deem “necessary or desirable.”

There are no explanations or limits on what that phrase might mean.

“I am allowed to use my best judgment,” says Ballem. “There has to be an element of trust placed in me to act in the best interests of the Games.”

The BC Civil Liberties Association wants to know who will oversee Ballem’s decisions.

“Their assurances have no legal weight and council, by passing these bylaws, has lost its moral authority to speak for Vancouver,” Holmes says.

Cameron Fennell, also of the BC Civil Liberties Association, is particularly upset about the library’s use as an Olympic live site, which will make it subject to closed circuit TV monitoring and searches. “This is utterly inappropriate and an affront to the vital role libraries play,” he says.

For free speech advocates like Alissa Westergard-Thorpe, the bylaws will “create an atmosphere free of dissent and visible poverty.”

She challenges provisions that will restrict political leafleting.

Ballem says the Vancouver city charter gives the city the right to restrict leafleting.

“That is designed to prevent unnecessary litter,” she says. “There is no intention to interfere with peoples’ expression.”

Council passed the bylaws Jul 23. Gay councillor Tim Stevenson voted with his Vision Vancouver caucus in favour of the measures.