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Olympic Bylaws Suspend Constitutional Rights: Citizens Respond

October 22, 2009
The infamous Olympics countdown in downtown Vancouver. Photo taken by NowPublic user mkalus.

The infamous Olympics countdown in downtown Vancouver. Photo taken by NowPublic user 'mkalus'.

A tempest is brewing that brings into question on the right of free of speech in Canada as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The catalyst for this storm is none other than the upcoming 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.  Though criticism of the Olympics in Vancouver has been pronounced and persistent since the bid was awarded, it has recently started to spin into a fevered pitch with the impending arrival of the Games in February.

The BCCLA will be supporting Christopher Shaw, U.B.C. professor and author of Five Ring Circus and student Alissa Westergard-Thorpe in a lawsuit against the City of Vancouver. The plaintiffs hope to strike down bylaws that they allege enforce the Olympic sponsors’ interests, but violate the Charter of Rights. The temporary bylaws crack down on advertising and graffiti, and restrict leafleting. Roving teams of IOC observers who are given the power to confiscate private property will enforce the bylaws.

As part of their agreement with the IOC, the City will ban anti-Olympic and unlicensed signage and leafleting in certain public areas. Councillor Geoff Meggs made assurances that these measures, which have precedent in other Olympic cities, are intended to protect official sponsors’ brands, and not to stifle free speech. Critics such as the BCCLA’s David EBY are not convinced, and warn that even a temporary suspension of the Charter of Rights puts our civil society on a slippery slope. The fact that the bylaw restricts signage not of a celebratory nature, and that dissent is being compartmentalized into “protest areas” makes the Council’s motives suspect.

One of the most interesting twists in this story for me is Mayor Gregor Robertson’s mysteriously veiled quasi-endorsement of citizen-powered media during the games. In this video of his impromptu speech by at VanChange Camp last summer, the Mayor said (at 1:54), “We’re glad to be to be doing everything we can in Vancouver, and leveraging the 2010 Games on this front. Making sure that all the people that are here communicating unaccredited communications and information from Vancouver is going to be really important.” I didn’t think much of this statement until Maurice from Olyblog was sharp enough to pick up on it.

I am not sure how to interpret Mayor Greg’s words, since the sentence structure is, well… pretty impromptu. He might have meant to encourage private citizens to pump up Vancouver’s brand through social media channels. Or, he could have been subtly promoting the use of technology and social media by citizens to constructively critique the Olympics.  It is probably the first interpretation, but I like the second one better. Here’s why:

The last time there was an Olympics where average citizens had broadcasting and publishing technology comparable to our current situation, it was in China, a country where all communications channels, even social media, are vigilantly monitored and censored for dissenting content. This will be the first time in the Games’ history that average citizens will have the equivalent of a mobile mini-video studio in their pockets, the ability to load the content onto YouTube, and then throw out a couple of Tweets linking to it the videos in near real time, all without being obstructed.

The Pivot Legal Society and the BCCLA are training legal observers to watch the watchers in the interest of protecting individuals’ constitutional rights, and they promise that their batteries are charged and memory cards are cleared.

You can probably figure where I stand on the matter of Olympic bylaws, but what do you think? Are these legitimate measures that have been enacted to protect official Olympic sponsors from unauthorized advertising, or are they meant to stifle free speech and marginalize critics? Based on past comments, I know I am probably writing to a left-leaning audience, but I would also like to hear from those who view the bylaws as balanced and necessary.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2009 6:42 pm

    Thanks for this post. Lot’s to think about. I’m all over the map on this one. My “legal” mind – what’s left of it (!) tends toward the PIVOT side of things; but that’s never the totality in this city bifurcated by east/west tensions and I’m mos. def. not just a “new” east/sider, but a New West Gal and if you’re from B.C. you’ll know what I’m talkin’ about. Now, what do east/west splits have to do with civil liberties in Vancouver vis a vis the Olympics? Well…perhaps in the way we see “frame” (sorry, jargon) how these issues of which “public space/where/by whom/for what purpose” re potential/real infringements. More, later. Sorry if this sounds cryptic – just tired after a day at the Writer’s Festival.

    One query: were you able/would it be possible to interview local city councillors on this issue? might be interesting to get their point of view as well.

    • nmboudin permalink
      October 26, 2009 10:54 pm

      I foller ya on the new east sider from new west string, but it wasn’t easy at first.

      Yeah, I don’t know if this is an East Side/West Side issue so much as an independent thinking one. I mean Chris Shaw is a published prof at the toniest establishment Uni West of Main St.

      I like your suggestion about interviewing city councillors. I can give it the old college try and do a follow up if I get anything interesting.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    October 22, 2009 12:58 pm

    As part of their agreement with the IOC, the City will ban anti-Olympic and unlicensed signage and leafleting in certain public areas.

    In my opinion it all depends on how extensive these “certain public areas” are. If the IOC just doesn’t want people waving protest signs and handing out leaflets directly in front of Olympic venues, I’m inclined to say fair enough: they’re putting on a big international party, and they don’t want it spoiled. If they’re trying to curtail free speech over a large area of the city, then that’s a bit different, and in that case I hope a lot of Vancouverites turn out to tell the IOC exactly where they can shove their Olympic torch.

    • nmboudin permalink
      October 26, 2009 11:06 pm

      Good point. They are talking about safe protest zones. A recent response to the press by the VPD says that any area of the city is open for protest, but within limits.

      Blocking a road, for example, is illegal and people engaged in that will face consequences. There will be judgement calls, to be sure.

      It feels like there is a public negotiation in the press at this point, which may have something to do with this high profile case challenging the city.

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