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Mayor promises to protect free speech during Olympics

BC Civil Liberties Association says major just stalling

 The BC Civil Liberties Association is calling foul on the City of Vancouver’s announcement that it will amend proposed Olympic bylaws to protect both free speech and Games’ sponsors during February’s Olympics.

It’s the latest salvo in the war of words between lawmakers and civil rights activists on when, where and what kind of protests will be allowed during the Winter Olympics.

Mayor Gregor Robertson announced Tuesday that respect for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is paramount.

“Our council is absolutely committed to protecting Charter rights and freedoms.

“We’ll do all we can to ensure we deliver on that commitment,” Robertson says in a news release.

Robertson says he understands the concerns of those who fear the bylaws would be open to abuse.

The civil liberties association, however, says the move is a cynical one aimed at thwarting a court challenge to the bylaws.

The challenge, brought by anti-Olympic activists Chris Shaw and Alissa Westergaard Thorpe, alleges the bylaws violate the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Charter.

The bylaws designate protest areas supervised by police for the duration of the Olympics. Games organizers have stressed protesters do not have to use the zones.

“We’ve had to help activists file a lawsuit to challenge this unconstitutional bylaw before we could be taken seriously,” says BCCLA president David Eby.

“After making a mockery of our concerns in the media, the city now appears to be trying to buy time so that our lawsuit can’t get to court,” Eby says.

Robertson says a final version of the bylaw is expected in November.

Eby maintains the time for amendments and consultation was back in July at the latest, not three months before the Olympics.

“We don’t have the time or the inclination to wait and see how close the city wants to cut their constitutional duties to protect free speech,” he says.

Eby says the BCCLA received notice of the planned amendments late Friday.

He says lawyers on the lawsuit are finalizing a draft application to shorten timelines so that the matter can get to court before February 2010.

Lesbian councillor Ellen Woodsworth says it’s vital the city guarantees free speech.

“There has been a public outcry over these bylaws and concerns over civil liberties and the Olympics. When ideas like ‘free speech zones’ are tossed around by security leaders,” she says. “It’s incredibly important for Vancouver city council to take a clear position.”

Gay NDP Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Herbert agrees.

Herbert says council needs to be absolutely clear in the bylaw about its intentions.

He says enforcement officers don’t have time to go and read council debates to discern what the bylaw’s true intent might be.

“The law must be clear that it’s supporting free speech, and not being used to limit it,” Herbert says. “The intent must be rock solid in the law.”

The city bylaw is not the only proposed law around the Olympics causing concern.

Two days after activists launched a complaint against the City’s Olympic bylaw earlier this month, news surfaced that the provincial government is preparing legislation of its own that will allow officials in Olympic cities to raid British Columbians’ homes to remove protest signage during the Games.

The civil liberties association says the BC government’s new Bill 13 proposals will allow Richmond, Whistler and Vancouver to enter residences and other private property with only 24 hours’ notice to remove or cover up signs.

The bill allows for fines of up to $10,000 as well as jail time.

“Although the legislation mentions jail time as a possible sanction for bylaw violations, Vancouver will not use this power,” Robertson promises.

VANOC CEO John Furlong said Oct 7 the lawsuit is a city issue and not a Games’ one.