The Olympic Games are going to cost Canadians more than just $6,000,000,000. Recent developments have shown that the core democratic right of free speech, the very right that the queer community relies on to be free from discrimination and to demand equality, is being suspended for the 2010 Olympics. This temporary suspension of free speech covers an area of more than 40 city blocks in downtown Vancouver, including the main library, David Lam Park, a school and other public facilities, as well as Olympic venues. This unprecedented action is being taken by our municipal, federal and provincial governments.
VANOC, Vancouver’s Olympic Organizing Committee, over whose board all three levels of government share control, is committed to the IOC’s Olympic Charter, which explicitly dictates at Rule 51 that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.” VANOC is in charge of venues, so you can forget about wearing your political T-shirts or bringing your “Save the Whales” sign to GM Place.
Forget too about handing out your leaflets advertising queer-positive events or news along the torch run, because VANOC wasn’t satisfied with only controlling speech inside venues and has written to cities along the Olympic torch route, asking those municipalities to restrict the distribution of political and advertising flyers in their streets during the run. Only one of the 30 cities we wrote to has so far promised that they won’t infringe the Charter of Rights and Freedoms rights of citizens to hand out leaflets during this high-profile Olympic event.
In 2003, the City of Vancouver signed a “Host City Contract” under Mayor Larry Campbell, making unconstitutional promises to VANOC and the International Olympic Committee that the City will “ensure that the provisions of the Olympic Charter relating to propaganda [Rule 51] and advertising are strictly observed … [and] shall ensure that no propaganda or advertising is placed within the Olympic venues or outside the Olympic venues in such a manner so as to be within the view of the television cameras covering the sports at the Games or of the spectators watching the sports at the Games … [and] shall ensure that no propaganda or advertising is allowed in the airspace of the City….”
To give effect to this contract, the majority of our City Council recently voted to pass a series of bylaws and motions that:
- Restrict access to over 40 downtown residential and commercial blocks deemed Olympic “venues” or “sites”, including parks, community centres and the central library, to people who consent to “security screening” and in which displaying “any [unlicenced] sign” is prohibited unless the sign is “celebratory”;
- Allow the City Manager to make any rules she sees fit restricting access to these city blocks and public facilities, without any approval from elected council members;
- Give special Olympic exemption permits across the city to signs that are “celebratory in nature” and, by extension, refuse permits to signs that are critical or otherwise undesirable;
- Call on the province to authorize the city to prohibit leaflet distribution if the leaflet is offensive to authorities and might end up as litter, punishable by fines of up to $10,000 per day, ostensibly to reduce work for city trash collectors;
- Conscript taxpayer-funded city workers to enforce trademark rules on behalf of the IOC; and,
- Eliminate the low-cost posters found on construction hoardings and utility poles that typically advertise concerts, protests, community meetings and art shows, because during the Olympics such affordable and accessible posters are a “nuisance and eyesore.”
No matter how exciting the Olympics might promise to be, there is very little chance that Canadians, if asked, especially Canadians from the queer community, would trade away their free speech rights for the Games, even temporarily. The BC Civil Liberties Association will be standing up for free speech before, during and after the Olympics, and interested readers can stand up for free speech too by emailing email@example.com and John Furlong, head of VANOC, at firstname.lastname@example.org, to let them know what you think about these new bylaw restrictions on free speech rights.