Zhang et al. v. City of Vancouver is a freedom of expression case which arises from the Falun Gong’s protests in front of the Chinese consulate. The BCCLA is an intervener in the case.
The Falun Gong is protesting against the Communist Party ban on the spiritual group in China. The group began protesting in front of the Chinese consulate in 2001. The City of Vancouver relied on an existing bylaw to remove protest structures, including a meditation hut that had housed a one-person, round the clock vigil and a large billboard. In 2010, the BC Court of Appeal found that the existing bylaw, which prohibited any type of structure from being erected, unjustifiably infringed on the free expression rights of the Falun Gong practitioners.
Following the Court of Appeal’s judgment, the City of Vancouver amended the bylaw. This case stemmed from that latest effort to limit Falun Gong demonstrations. The BCCLA argued that the current bylaw is equally unconstitutional. The BCCLA argued that this type of political expression is at the very heart of the values the Charter’s freedom of expression guarantee protects. City streets are traditional areas that provide a forum for the public expression of political viewpoints and the use of structures to convey those viewpoints is protected.
The BC Supreme Court heard arguments in the case September 15-16, 2014. On December 4, 2014, the Court rendered judgement. The BC Supreme Court upheld the city’s latest bylaws that preclude the petitioners and others from permanently erecting politically expressive structures. The court determined that although the bylaws infringe freedom of expression, that infringement is outweighed by the benefits to the public.
Grace Pastine, Litigation Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, reacted to the court’s decision:
“We are disappointed by the decision, and we hope that the petitioners will appeal the ruling. In our view, the bylaws unjustifiably infringe free expression rights. The restrictions on political structures do not benefit Vancouver or its citizens.
The blanket prohibitions on certain types of protest structures, and the location and timing of protest structures, are deeply problematic. Not only do citizens have to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hurdles to get a permit for a structure such as a tent or a large sign – they are forced to remove it between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., it is subject to arbitrary size restrictions, it cannot be located within 5 meters of a bus stop or business entrance, taxi zone or wheelchair ramp, and it cannot be in the same location for more than 30 days, with no possibility of extension.
The city has a right to regulate the use of the city street for the public good– but those regulations and restrictions must be constitutional. The city claims that the bylaws are meant to protect public safety – but concerns about safety seem purely hypothetical. If the city can safely allow sidewalk cafes and sandwich boards on our public streets, surely it can make room for the type of political expression that lies at the heart of our democratic society.
The city cannot use a bylaw to silence speech it dislikes or criticism it would rather not hear. The government must represent the public interest , and the true public interest in this case is the ability to engage our constitutionally-protected freedom of expression.”
The BCCLA was represented in the case by David McEwan and Brent Olthuis of Hunter Litigation Chambers.