Ottawa’s postering guidelines leave those promoting small events at the mercy of bylaw officers and those with a chip on their shoulder. With a penalty of $300 per infraction, up to a maximum of $5000, a complaint over a few misplaced posters sink a small event for good.
Small organizations from marginalized communities — such as the queer community — are more likely to rely on postering to get the word out due to a lack the funds to purchase conventional advertising. A 1993 Supreme Court decision recognized postering as a free speech right, sometimes the only outlet available to those with unpopular opinions.
Meanwhile, an unevenly applied law is subject to abuse. Those making complaints have the power to systematically target particular groups. As well, given that some organizations receive fines while others get warnings, city officials are in a position where their biases can get the best of them.
Many of the organizations targeted — a poetry night at a gay bar, a club night that hosts a trans DJ, and a punk show – share a comment element: a trivial slight to prevailing sexual mores.
Susan Jones, the director of bylaw services, says that she “hasn’t noticed a trend” in who receives the brunt of the complaints, noting that her office deals with 60,000 complaints annually dealing all the city’s bylaws.
The patchwork law makes postering a minefield, and those who haven’t done their homework routinely break the law unknowingly. Downtown, the city has installed poster collars, metal rings protecting poles from postering directly on wood. The city permits one poster per event per collar. If there’s a collar within 200 metres, then postering on uncollared telephone poles is off limits. The city requires promoters to remove posters within 48 hours of an event or 21 days after postering — even though they’re likely to be buried under other posters soon after they’re affixed and the city cleans the collars twice a month.
But the full law is not available on the city’s website; in fact, even bylaw officers don’t have copies of the rules.
Dusty Owl, a poetry reading series hosted at Swizzles, was threatened with a fine. Dusty Owl prominently displays the gay bar’s logo on its posters. Responding to a complaint, bylaw officers showed up at Swizzles and told them they were in danger of facing big penalties.
“They weren’t that angry, but it definitely worried the management at Swizzles,” says organizer Kate Hunt.
Meanwhile, major offenders — hawking weight loss pills, guided meditation, and plastic surgery — seem to operate with impunity, says Caitlyn Pascal, a local DJ who runs Divergence and has scratched at Spins and Needles. Judging by the streets, there is no shortage of people who have breached the current law, meaning bylaw officers must make choices, fining some while turning a blind eye to others.
“There are a whole series of regular offenders,” says Pascal.
Jones agrees that there are “problem people” who are repeat offenders.
There’s no shortage of opinions on how to fix the problem. Eugene Haslam, the owner of Zaphod’s, wants to see the bylaw applied evenly — not just to small-venue events. This November, he set up meetings with other promoters and city staff so that both sides could air their grievances.
The city’s bylaw office has so far been responsive. Jones also promises a more complete bylaw rundown online and a map of where the city’s poster collars are.
And she says she’s heard complaints that there aren’t enough postering collars in high traffic area — Haslam, Hunt, and Pascal agree — and she’s willing to look into adding more.
“It’s a matter of perception. There are people who just see an unsightly mess of papers stuck up everywhere, who don’t care about what’s being advertised. And then there are people who do care about what’s advertised on these posters who see a vibrant culture. It’s a matter of getting bylaw officers to see things from the second perspective,” says Hunt.