This afternoon I printed up a sort of “do it yourself civil disobedience kit” with an excerpt from the City of Charlottetown’s Zoning and Development Bylaw: an excerpt from its section on signage, which places rather inflexible limits on our constitutionally-guaranteed right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
Regular readers will recall that this very issue was the topic considered in the 1993 Supreme Court of Canada case Ramsden v. Peterborough (City) where the court said, of the City of Peterborough, Ontario bylaw of the day, in part:
It is clear that the effect of the by-law is to limit expression. The absolute prohibition of postering on public property prevents the communication of political, cultural and artistic messages.
The Peterborough bylaw’s wording was:
No bill, poster, sign or other advertisement of any nature whatsoever shall be placed on or caused to be placed on any public property or placed on or attached to or caused to be placed or attached to any tree situate on any public property within the limits of the City of Peterborough or any pole, post, stanchion or other object which is used for the purpose of carrying the transmission lines of any telephone, telegraph or electric power company situate on any public property within the limits of the City of Peterborough.
In other words, much the same as we have today here in Charlottetown, albeit without the prohibition on affixing signs to shrubs, rocks and other natural objects we enjoy.
The Court cited another case, Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada v. Canada, and in that ruling Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé commented:
If members of the public had no right whatsoever to distribute leaflets or engage in other expressive activity on government-owned property (except with permission), then therea would be little if any opportunity to exercise their rights of freedom of expression. Only those with enough wealth to own land, or mass media facilities (whose ownership is largely concentrated), would be able to engage in free expression. This would subvert achievement of the Charter’s basic purpose as identified by this Court, i.e., the free exchange of ideas, open debate of public affairs, the effective working of democratic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge and truth. These eminent goals would be frustrated if for practical purposes, only the favoured few have any avenue to communicate with the public.
It’s been 19 years since the Ramsden case; I would encourage the City of Charlottetown to review this section of the Zoning and Development Bylaw with an eye to bringing it into line with the letter and spirit of the court’s ruling in that case.
(Fun fact: Chief Justice Bora Laskin, leading the court when Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada v. Canada was ruled upon, went to high school with my grandmother in Fort William, Ontario).