Saturday, March 05, 2005

Who owns public space? Lost kitten posters and the Constitution

The lowly home-made poster is once again at the centre of a legal controversy as Toronto's planning and transportation committee prepares to hear deputations on the implementation of an anti-postering by-law.

In the eyes of many city officials, posters are an eyesore, a blight, a form of vandalism. To local musicians, activists and anyone planning a garage sale or looking for a lost kitten, they are an integral part of the urban landscape.

In 2002, City Council considered a by-law recommendation that would have banned postering on 99% of the city's utility poles. Activists were successful in beating back the idea but now some councillors appear to want to introduce the exact same by-law without amendments. Hearings are being held March 7th.

The Supreme Court's Ramsden v. Peterborough decision ([1993] 2 S.C.R. 1084) ruled that any absolute ban on postering on public property was unconstitutional because it was an unreasonable limit on freedom of expression. The Court did argue that some restrictions could be justified, including limits relating to location, size and how long a poster could stay up.

Under the Toronto proposal, posters would be limited to "collars" wrapped around some 4,000 utility poles. There are an estimated quarter of a million utility poles in Toronto.

Leading the opposition to the proposed restrictions is Toronto's very active Public Space Committee, "dedicated to protecting our shared common spaces from commercial influence and privatisation". The Committee is worried that restrictions will sterilize and suburbanize the face of Canada's largest city and that only big, shiny commercial ads and billboards full of happy people will be left.

Mayor David Miller is passionate about his "clean and beautiful city" initiative, but he is also on record as being against anything that would impose onerous obstacles to free speech.

The postering controversy has been an issue in such cities as Seattle and New York.


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posted by Michel-Adrien at 6:15 pm


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