Chilliwack sign bylaw ‘constitutionally suspect’ says BC Civil Liberties official

The BC Civil Liberties Association is asking Chilliwack and other Lower Mainland municipalities to review sign bylaws cited in the removal of anti-HST signs from city properties.

The BC Civil Liberties Association is asking Chilliwack and other Lower Mainland municipalities to review sign bylaws cited in the removal of anti-HST signs from city properties.

“Municipalities are enforcing bylaws that will not survive constitutional challenge,” BCCLA president Robert Holmes said in a June 24 news release.

He said a legal challenge would be “costly to citizens and taxpayers,” so the association is urging municipalities to “do the right thing” and redraft bylaws to comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said the city’s lawyer is already reviewing the bylaw.

But she stood by her earlier defense of the bylaw, which was cited when dozens of anti-HST signs were removed from city property, including several outside City Hall.

Gaetz said she still believes the city is on solid legal ground because the bylaw does not absolutely ban political signs, so it’s not infringing on anyone’s freedom of speech.

The bylaw does require a $500 deposit to make sure the signs are taken down once the election, or, in this case, the referendum, is over, but it is refunded if all the signs are taken down.

“It’s not fair to taxpayers,” Gaetz insisted, to make them pay for sign removal, whether they agree or not with the HST.

But Micheal Vonn, the BCCLA’s policy director, said the $500 permit fee makes the Chilliwack bylaw “constitutionally suspect … right from the get-go.”

The legal issue is whether the bylaw “impairs the rights in question,” she said, and the courts might view the permit fee – even a refundable one – as a stumbling block to freedom of speech.

“Right away, that (fee) takes a whole lot of people out of the running,” Vonn said.

She said the Chilliwack bylaw – and others in the Lower Mainland – were drafted before the BC Court of Appeal struck down a sign bylaw last year in Vancouver that proposed a $1,000 permit fee.

“The minute you start getting into those kinds of figures, it’s constitutionally suspect,” she said.

The enforcement of most municipal sign bylaws is also complaint driven, another no-no as far as freedom of speech is concerned.

“It’s simply not enough that (a sign or slogan) gets up somebody’s nose,” Vonn said, to justify removal.

The BCCLA doesn’t want to start a court fight, Vonn added, and she hopes “moral suasion” will convince municipalities to let the anti-HST signs remain up until the referendum is over.

In Chilliwack, Fight HST organizer Glen Thompson vowed he’d take the city to court for removing the anti-HST signs, but then NDP election candidate Gwen O’Mahony stepped into the fray and paid the $500 permit deposit.