News
4 min

Free speech for those with bucks

City targets posters, newspaper boxes

THE RIGHT INFORMATION. City Hall is turning control freak over what media gets what access. Credit: Joshua Meles

It may soon be easier to put up an eight-foot billboard on a Toronto sidewalk than to put up a poster seeking your lost kitty.

In fact, if city council’s various proposed beautification policies are passed, kitties – as well as community groups – will be eradicated in favour of even more intrusive corporate advertising.

There are three major beautification proposals before city council now, all in various degrees of contradiction and hypocrisy in relation to each other.

The one that’s gotten the most attention is the antipostering bylaw proposing to restrict advertising on hydro poles to a few specially-designated poles across the city. There’s also a draft bylaw to restrict the number of newspaper boxes allowed on city streets.

And then, of course, there’s the proposal – soon to be tried out in various parts of the city – to allow garbage cans that will incorporate 7.5-feet-tall illuminated billboards.

Does anyone see a problem with any of this? As Dave Meslin, the coordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee, says, “I’m not sure why the city goes after low-priority issues when they should be going after billboards. They are by far the largest visual invasion of our public spaces.”

It would be one thing if the city were to ban all postering, all billboards, all newspaper boxes, anything on public space. It would be misguided, but it would be consistent. But to restrict posters and newspaper boxes while seeking out corporate advertising seems a tad hypocritical. And, whether intended as such or not, it also seems like an assault on free speech.

It’s not entirely the city’s fault. Postering and newspaper boxes probably are out of control. But the city is punishing community publications and individuals for corporate and commercial activities.

Postering, intended as a low-cost medium for promoting Homohops, antiwar protests and the aforementioned lost felines, has been co-opted by large corporations promoting music or films or mainstream companies seeking quick and cheap visibility. Now if it were possible to enact a bylaw that actually banned those companies from postering, that might be welcome.

Newspaper boxes are used increasingly for the multiple publications put out by the big media conglomerates, while community papers (including this one) are squeezed out. For example, not only do we have the four paid dailies, we have three free dailies (Metro, 24 Hours and Canwest’s Dose) put out by the same people, who are also responsible for most of the others (Real Estate News and all the various car, apartment, house and job publications).

“I think it’s important that they do regulate them,” says Meslin, “so they don’t get out of hand and block pedestrian access. But I think it’s really important to distinguish between the smaller community papers, like Xtra, and the dailies. The dailies are available in every store and by subscription.”

In fact, many paid daily boxes around the city are stocked with only four or five papers, and some aren’t refilled at all, but are maintained solely to be used as an advertising surface.

The city has already adopted a moratorium on new boxes, and the proposed bylaw, in addition to imposing stricter controls, would more than double the fee charged per box, to $100.

The ones who would suffer from these changes would be the free papers – those serving the gay, Chinese or Indian communities, to name just three. Free papers, often run by not-for-profit companies, can’t expand their readership through increased sales or increased advertising.

Given that minority communities are expanding beyond their traditional boundaries, the need for the expansion of their news-papers to all parts of the city is growing. Queers no longer live just in the ghetto, Chinese in Chinatown or Indians in Little India.

The Supreme Court Of Canada has also ruled, in various cases, that traditionally oppressed groups have the right to special consideration when it comes to issues of their free speech.

Those arguments don’t seem to carry much weight with many city councillors. Howard Moscoe, who represents Eglinton-Lawrence, told the Toronto Star that free papers are the problem.

“Everybody’s putting free newspapers in boxes on the street and my residents are tripping over them. They’ve become a nuisance. While we believe passionately in a free press, we don’t believe the press is free to clutter our city with junk.”

Other cities have already gone further than Toronto’s proposed bylaw. Vancouver, for example, has restricted newspaper boxes to six per corner, three on each street. The papers that were there longest, usually the dailies, get first priority, making it virtually impossible to expand distribution.

So far, in Toronto, the bylaw has been delayed while the larger publications have formed a group to explore alternatives. As well as looking at possible constitutional issues, the group is working on a proposal for multiple-publication boxes (MPB). MPBs would be one large box that would contain all the papers in separate slots. There would be at least two kinds, one for paid papers and one for free.

Meslin sees MPBs as making things even more ugly.

“This idea of making it all in one box is ridiculous. I think all the different colours are attractive. I think things look kind of scary when they become monotonous and cookie-cutter. I think the different sizes and shapes are beautiful. It’s what Toronto is all about.”

Beyond the aesthetic, and even the free speech arguments, there’s another factor: enforcement.

It might be possible to enforce a bylaw on newspaper boxes, as the city can set the licensing fees for the boxes at any level they wish. Even so, there’s currently hundreds, maybe thousands, of boxes unaccounted for by the city, and given Toronto’s financial situation, it’s doubtful any extra money raised by box fees would go entirely to enforcement.

As for the antipostering bylaw, which was to be voted on by council this week, it contains no provisions for actual enforcement. Even if it held up under any court challenges, there are no plans to hire anyone to seek out and fine offenders, let alone to remove offending posters.

So there you have Toronto in a nutshell. City council is debating policies that are contradictory, may be unconstitutional, favour corporations over communities and will be completely unenforceable anyway.

Business as usual.