Down with billboards
The Plateau Mont-Royal is en route to becoming the first billboard-free zone in Montreal: in July the borough passed a bylaw banning the installation of new advertising billboards, and this month they voted to remove existing billboards within a year.
In a press release, Projet Montréal said that the billboard ban aims to reduce visual pollution. There are currently 45 billboards in the borough which earn the central city $40,000 a year in tax dollars. The Plateau Borough does not get any income from these advertisements.
“The main beneficiaries of this advertising are a handful of powerful companies. The losers are the citizens exposed to theirs ugliness day after day after day. It’s a very bad deal for Montrealers,” said Alex Norris, borough councillor for Projet Montréal in the Mile End district.
“Advertising does not exist to serve his borough. And companies that advertise create the jobs, the products and the wealth that governments tax. Fortunately, commercial advertising has some protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a prominent lawyer predicts confidently that the borough’s measure would not survive a court test.”
The Gazette also pointed to the case of Oakville, ON, who lost a 14-year battle to ban billboards on their territory. In Vann Media Group Inc vs Oakville, 2008, Justice Paul Rouleau said billboards were “similar to books, newspapers and radio or television, in that they provide a medium through which messages are conveyed. Although the dominant use of billboards is to convey commercial messages, they are, on occasion, used to convey political, personal, charitable and many other types of messages.”
In a similar case in San Francisco, the US Supreme Court ruled that: “Insofar as it regulates commercial speech, the ordinance meets the constitutional requirements…However, the city’s general ban on signs carrying noncommercial advertising is invalid under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
Basically, the two judges concluded that we can’t ban the medium because of the message…
Of course this is exactly the kind of argument that led the Supreme Court and the Quebec court of appeal to defend postering under the charter of rights.
So posters promoting a local, independent arts scene are good while billboards advertising the products of a multi-national corporation are bad, right? But what about posters promoting corporate products; what about artistic billboards?
It all comes down to the fickle issue of content – a judgement that may not be wise to leave in the hands of city workers. Another judge, commenting on the San Francisco case, pointed out the difficulties and even dangers practicing such a distinction:
“It is one thing for a court to classify in specific cases whether commercial or noncommercial speech is involved, but quite another — and for me dispositively so — for a city to do so regularly for the purpose of deciding what messages may be communicated by way of billboards”
“I have no doubt that those who seek to convey commercial messages will engage in the most imaginative of exercises to place themselves within the safe haven of noncommercial speech, while at the same time conveying their commercial message. Encouraging such behavior can only make the job of city officials — who already are inclined to ban billboards — that much more difficult and potentially intrusive upon legitimate noncommercial expression.”
City councillor Alex Norris believes that any advertiser who fights the ban will end up “losing in the court of public opinion.” But the right to erect billboards would likely be defended by third-party companies who profit from renting the advertising space, rather than the brands that are promoted through billboards, so public opinion may be of little importance to the debate.
One thing that the borough can do is limit the size and placement of advertisements, be they of the poster or the billboard variety. Rather than risking another costly visit to the courts, perhaps this would be a more fruitful avenue to pursue in both dossiers?
Mile End poster photo by Christopher DeWolf.