Post to post
Travel to any city in Canada and you’ll get a sense of its communities and culture from the posters you find on its streets - regardless of whether or not they have been outlawed.
That’s because postering as a form of expression is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those who attempt to banish posters from their streets will find it difficult to survive a challenge to their law. According to a Supreme Court ruling in favour of Peterborough musician Ken Ramsden, cities can only place restrictions on postering if they provide adequate space for it to occur. The hitch is that placing and enforcing restrictions is expensive, time consuming, and difficult to control. And while this is enough of a hassle to cause some cities to give up altogether, it hasn’t stopped others from trying.
From Halifax to Vancouver, communities across Canada have been engaged in their own poster power struggles. Examining the tactics used, and the wins and losses that have occurred throughout, may be helpful to those involved in local fights for postering rights.
After being charged with violating Vancouver’s by-law in 1998, cannabis activist David Malmo-Levine went to court to defend himself, arguing that the Ramsden ruling prohibited absolute bans on expression. The city pointed to the few legal places that postering did exist, however, thereby winning its appeal on the basis that it had placed a reasonable limit on expression. Despite a population of just over 500,000, (2 million if you include the greater Vancouver area) posters are currently restricted to 120 utility poles fitted with cylinders. Apparently, the provision of under 0.4% per cent of utility poles for postering (there are around 30,000 poles in total) is viewed as adequate space.
Despite its victory, the city continues to find postering difficult to control. But it’s not giving up. On top of spending nearly $300,000 annually to remove posters and repaint surfaces, it has increased its budget to allow for 24 new poster cylinders per year. Groups who poster illegally are notified of their transgressions, and some are being billed for the cost of removal (under the by-law, violators could be charged up to $2000). In its latest move, the city is experimenting with different types of textured coating on poles which would prevent posters from sticking to surfaces, making them easier to take down.
When the city of Calgary issued a full ban on all temporary signs along city streets in 1995, it was challenged and fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Consistent with the judgement in the Ramsden case, the court ruled that while posters could be regulated, they could not be banned altogether.
The current by-law allows posters on poles and street lights as long as there is only one poster per person per pole, and as long as they are at least 150 metres from a poster board. These four-sided poster boards can be found in the city’s revitalization zones, where they were placed to protect the more expensive poles and “upscale street furniture” that exist there. As a safety precaution, posters are also prohibited along the speedways that run through the city.
According to Bill Bruce, Manager of the City of Calgary’s by-law services, postering hasn’t really been an issue since the by-law was amended. Most people take down their posters after their event has finished, and if a business does complain, the city will work with them to remove any illegally placed posters and clean things up.
In 1997, when Chris Rickett challenged Stratford’s anti-postering by-law in court as unconstitutional, the city dropped the charges against him because, according to him, “they knew they’d lose and didn’t want to have to rewrite the by-law.” Rewritten or not, Rickett’s threat of a constitutional challenge seemed to do the trick. Since then, no one else has been charged under the by-law. While technically illegal, Rickett says that postering still takes place.
Over 10 years ago, Kenneth Ramsden was charged for fastening posters advertising upcoming performances of his band to publicly owned hydro poles. At the time, a city by-law stated that postering on public property was a crime. Ramsden decided to fight the charges in court as unconstitutional.
The Ramsden case was a victory for pro-poster and public space advocates nation-wide. In the end, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that postering is a constitutional right. It decreed that while a complete ban on postering helped to prevent litter, work hazards, and perceived unsightliness, it did not restrict expression as little as possible.
As part of an initiative to keep the city “clean and green,” the city of Ottawa provides 269 postering collars in the downtown core, which covers an area of around 13 square kilometres. Posters cannot be placed within 200 meters of a collar, and must be put up with tape, with their date clearly printed in the bottom right corner. Information at the top of each collar tells users when they should take their posters down, which is generally 21 days after it was posted, or 48 hours after the event. In neighbourhoods without collars, posters can be displayed on any publicly owned poles as long as they are not on a road medium. These rules may sound pretty clear, but the city still finds the by-law difficult to enforce, and is currently undergoing research to figure out why.
Montreal’s by-law currently forbids postering on lampposts and other public spaces, but that could soon change. In 1998, activist Jaggi Singh attempted to challenge the by-law on constitutional grounds after being fined $135 for illegal postering. Right before the case went to trail, however, the city withdrew his fine. In the spring of 2000, Singh was charged again, and he repeated the process. This time the city didn’t back down, but a judgement is yet to be made. After recurring delays, a verdict is now scheduled for fall 2003 – three years after Singh was originally charged.
Before 1996, you had to have a permit to poster on Halifax’s city streets. But since amalgamation, postering has been banned altogether – meaning no new licences have been granted. Those who really want to poster can turn to the 10 collars or 5 kiosks the city has provided in its downtown core. Nevertheless, postering is only increasing in the city, leaving local politicians and business groups scrambling to find ways to eradicate the “unsightly mess.”
In December 2000, Mayor Peter Kelly announced the S.W.A.P (Signs Without A Permit) initiative whereby the Halifax Regional Municipality, along with private sector partners will remove posters and discourage future postering by prosecuting violators of the by-law under “Operation Fresh Start.” Now, the city is working on a harmonization by-law that will give them the force it needs to hit those who break the law with tickets of up to $215.
A St. John’s by-law which restricted postering everywhere in the city sat dormant for almost 10 years before their city council, under newly elected mayor Andy Wells, actually tried to enforce it in 1998. Threats of fines of up to $500 brought an outcry from downtown arts and business communities, as well as community-based organisations.
When city council realised that they couldn’t legally ban postering, a poster by-law committee was formed, made up of representatives from various concerned groups throughout the community.
After three-and-a-half years of deliberation, it was decided that all 120 utility poles in St. Johns would be wrapped in aluminum sheathes topped by a layer of tyvek. The cost of these metal sheathes would be covered by Newfoundland Power, which owns the poles. Posterers are encouraged to use tape instead of staples, and the tyvek is stripped by the city every few months and replaced. The original anti-postering by-law was officially repealed in 2002.
Dale Duncan is the managing editor of Spacing
(c) 2004 Spacing Publishing