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BC Civil Liberties Association Files Suit Against City of Vancouver For Olympics Speech Restriction Bylaw

Vancouver Observer commentator Chris Shaw is a key plaintiff in the lawsuit along with Alissa Westergard-Thorp.  Story by Megan Stewart with Linda Solomon

David Eby talks to the press, while plaintiffs Chris Shaw and Alissa Westergard-Thorp watch from behind. Photo by Megan Stewart

Two citizens stood up today against the Vancouver Olympics Committee and the City of Vancouver to oppose a bylaw they say  will infringe on free speech and erode Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

  With David Eby of The B.C. Civil Liberties Association representing them, Chris Shaw, a UBC professor of ophthalmology, neuroscientist (and  Vancouver Observer blogger), and The Olympic Resistance Network’s Alissa Westergard-Thorp,announced this morning that they have filed a statement of claim against the City of Vancouver in the Supreme Court of BC.  Their lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of an Olympic bylaw limiting free speech during the 2010 Winter Games that was passed by council in July,  Eby told reporters this morning.

The BBCLA, with plaintiffs Shaw and Westergard-Thorp, claim their rights to free speech and freedom of movement will be denied once the Winter Games by-laws passed by city council take effect. They say the bylaws, commonly referred to as the omnibus bylaws, will infringe their Charter rights and are unconstitutional.

"If people believe these security measures are being taken to protect them," Eby told the Vancouver Observer, "they are sorely mistaken.  All the documents that we have ever seen of the mandate of the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) is to protect the athletes at the Games and the "Olympic family," which are the sponsors and the IOC (International Olymipc Committee.)

"So the billion dollar security budget is not intended at all to protect the population in Vancouver, whether housed or homeless.  It is intended to protect an elite group of people who are spending two weeks in Vancouver and Whistler."

Shaw is  the author of Five Ring Circus, The True Cost of the Olympic Games, a critical report on  the process leading up to Vancouver's selection as host to the 2010 Winter Games. "Waving the flag while acquiescing to civil rights violations does not make you a patriot, rather a hypocrite. Surrendering part of the commons to a private party surrenders it all. Accepting a Charter violation as part of the circus, even for three weeks, accepts each and every civil rights violation of the future," Shaw said.

The City charter, if allowed to stand, will set a precedent for the erosian of hard won rights, Eby said.  "It's as fundamental as Canadians being able to express their opinions on public land without interference from the government. VANOC, in my personal opinion, is a government organization, set up by government, controlled by government, and the city of Vancouver.  The City of Vancouver is accountable to its citizens and neither have the ability to tell Canadians that they cannot hold a Free Tibet banner on the public sidewalk in front of GM Place. That's what the bylaw says.  You're not allowed to hold any signs that are unlicensed in the zones set out in the bylaws.

"The idea of the right to free speech trumps, in our opinion, the right not to be offended, because we believe that the best way for society to come to a conclusion on important issues is free and public debate rather than represssing unpopular idea," Eby said.

Here Is What the "Anti-Free Speech" Bylaw Says

The bylaw includes a passage entitled "prohibitions regarding city land," which includes a clause that will almost surely trigger a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge. Clause 4B makes it illegal during the Winter Games without authorization to:

"(a) bring onto city land any
(i) weapon,
(ii) object, including any rock, stick, or glass or metal bottle useable as a weapon, except for crutches or a cane that a person who is elderly or disabled uses as a mobility aid,
(iii) large object, including any bag, or luggage that exceeds 23 x 40 x 55 centimetres;
(iv) voice amplification equipment including any megaphone,
(v) motorized vehicle, except for a motorized wheel chair or scooter that a person who is elderly or disabled uses as a mobility aid,
(vi) anything that makes noise that interferes with the enjoyment of entertainment on city land by other persons,
(vii) distribute any advertising material or install or carry any sign unless licensed to do so by the city."

Protest signs usually are made using sticks, often are larger than subsection (iii) allows (as are puppets and other protest devices), demonstrations almost always employ megaphones or other voice amplification devices, and can well "interfere with the enjoyment" of the Olympic spectacle by who chose to be so offended. Protesters often pass out leaflets as well. Thus, any of the dozens of protests I've attended over the last few years would easily be in violation of five of seven subsections.

Read more about the bylaws.

 In a related develoment today, the International Olympics Committee expressed concern in Copenhagen about "unnecessary" levels of security planned for Vancouver's Olympics games.

Read Chris Shaw's "The Olympics Retort" on VO

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