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Anti-Olympic signs could mean jail: rights group

Last Updated: Sunday, October 11, 2009 | 7:48 PM ET

A proposed B.C. law would allow municipal officials to enter homes to seize unauthorized and possibly anti-Olympic signs on short notice, civil libertarians say.

Violators could be fined up to $10,000 a day and jailed up to six months, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said Friday.

The proposed law was introduced Thursday as a bill to amend the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act.

The government said in a statement that the changes will "provide the municipalities of Vancouver, Richmond and Whistler with temporary enforcement powers to enable them to swiftly remove illegal signs and graffiti during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games."

"The legislation does not change the existing scope of authority to regulate signs and graffiti. Rather, it provides, on a temporary basis, a faster way of removing signs and graffiti that violate municipal bylaws during the short period the Games are underway."

Bill Bennett, the minister of community and rural development, said that given the short duration of the Olympics, the cities of Richmond, Whistler, and Vancouver must be able to enforce their own bylaws quickly.

"That to me seems like a reasonable thing to do when you've got the Olympic games lasting 20-odd days," Bennett said.

"You've got the potential for some businesses to try and exploit the games logo without having paid for the rights to do that. I think its a reasonable thing for communities to want to remove those kinds of signs, and to remove them before the end of the Olympic Games."

Civil rights group concerned

But that explanation didn't sit well with civil liberties advocates, who said that if the law passes, municipalities would need to enact their own bylaws to take advantage of their new powers, and that the new powers go further than the government suggests, particularly in Vancouver.

The city passed the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bylaw in June to restrict the distribution and exhibition of unapproved advertising material and signs in any Olympic area during the Games.

City officials have said the law is intended to clamp down on so-called ambush marketing, and it includes an exception for celebratory signs, which are defined as those that celebrate the 2010 Winter Games and create or add to the festive atmosphere.

'People will be risking $10,000-a-day fines and six months in jail just to criticize the Olympics.'— Robert Holmes, B.C. Civil Liberties Association

But legal experts say the definition of an unapproved sign is open to interpretation.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has been warning for several months that the vague wording might be used against anti-Olympic signs or promotions for anti-Olympic events or material.

And under the bill introduced Thursday, the maximum fine for violations would rise to $10,000 a day from $50, and a jail term of six months, the association said. As well, city officials would only have to give notice of 24 hours, rather than two weeks, before entering a property to remove a sign.

"If Vancouver acts on this provision, people will be risking $10,000-a-day fines and six months in jail just to criticize the Olympics," Robert Holmes, the president of the civil liberties group, said in statement.

"Six months in jail is usually reserved for criminals who have a record of several convictions for breaking and entering," Holmes said.

"Telling people who exercise free speech that local authorities may barge in, rip down signs inside your property, fine you or throw you in jail will underscore the growing impression that our governments care more about their own camera appearances at Olympic events than about people's rights," Holmes said.

Court challenge launched

Earlier this week, the association helped two anti-Olympics activists launch a legal challenge of Vancouver's 2010 Olympics bylaw in B.C. Supreme Court, claiming it was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says he's still studying the issue.

"Certainly, groups such as civil liberties have the right to challenge the laws, the bylaws that are made, so we'll respect that process and hopefully it makes those laws stronger and more reasonable," Robertson said.

The association is suspicious of the timing of the provincial bill's introduction so close to the Olympic games, which have been planned for years.

"We've seen them timing things so that they don't put in place laws that are special to the Olympics until the last minute," Holmes said. "And part of that leads to the suspicion that they've done it in a calculated and deliberate way, to remove the ability of the courts, and people who might want to take it to court, to have their rights protected."

Anti-Olympic activists involved in the legal challenge have also said they and their family and friends are being subject to unreasonable harassment and surveillance by the Olympic security unit.


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