Dozens of small businesses are challenging the Quebec government's decision to fine them for violating the province's language law by having English signs and websites.

During the first day of hearings today, the merchants' lawyer argued that the French language law is outdated and should be changed.

“People like my clients presumably will continue to be prosecuted unless the law is declared invalid. So what we want to prevent is the state-sponsored harassment of small anglo and ethnic merchants,” said lawyer Brent Tyler.

Predominantly French

Under Quebec's language law, outdoor commercial signs must be predominantly in French.

Tyler said the government has the right to make French mandatory on commercial signs, but it should be legal for English to appear in equal font size too.

“We're prepared to concede, in that narrow context, that the government can impose French on the outside. But they cannot deny citizens the option to be equal — the possibility of putting their own language equal size to the French,” Tyler said.

Prosecutor Louis-Frédéric Prévost argued the law is clear.

“The fact is the law is still valid and constitutional,” said Prévost.

The prosecutor said the businesses violated the law “mainly, with the public display dossier where French was not predominant, and also on websites which were only in English — these also contribute to infractions of the law.”

Tyler disagreed, arguing that the government has no right to dictate the language of websites.

“Cyberspace has no language, no colour, no smell and people should be free to express themselves on the internet in any language they choose and not have the government tell them what to do.”

Testimony is expected to last all week.