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What follows is an essay I have a court order to write as punishment for a postering offense that is at this moment being sent to the judge and the crown. I would normally prefer not to use my name when expressing my views on the internet, knowing that they could then easily come up in a google search for anyone’s eyes to see. Since the state will now have these words in their record, I see no point in trying to conceal my identity. I would also not normally prefer to write on a subject with such blatantly obvious answers to me as this one. Being already forced by the state to make some type of statement I couldn’t bring myself to kneel down and give any type of respect to democratic rights and freedoms. Not having the money to pay the fine I didn’t really have the option of not writing the essay. So here goes…
Are There Any Limits to Free Expression in a Democratic Society?
In early April 2010, I was putting up a poster with wheat paste on a brick pillar in front of the co-op radio building at Columbia and Hastings. As I was finishing up I looked over my shoulder to see two police officers standing behind me, a male and a female, both young and (as I would find out later) clearly inexperienced. I picked up my bucket of wheat paste and carried on my way. The police said “hey” to grab my attention, and I turned around. Informing me that what I was doing was illegal, they started to question me and ask for my identification.
After determining that I had no arrest warrants, they stood there awkwardly trying to decide what to do with me. After a short moment an off duty police officer, by the name of Valerie Spicer (who is known for her anti-graffiti crusades), came walking by. One of them asks “hey Val, we just caught this guy putting up a poster over there, what can we do with this guy?” She asked “did you run his name?” They responded that they did run my name and told her what it was. Her face lit up with joy as she told them that I was “a hardcore anarchist”, and that I was “involved with all that Olympic stuff downtown”… “You can get him for mischief under 5000 (in reference to the postering), book him now, good job guys, just make sure you get a statement from a witness, or someone that works at that building”.
After she left they put me in handcuffs and waited around at the entrance of the building. A few men came to the entrance and waited to get buzzed in. The two cops approached them asking for a statement only to be turned away for the reason that they didn’t think that co-op radio would have a problem with the content of the poster, and because they were just volunteers and didn’t think they had the authority to make a statement.
A few minutes after they went in a lone man came walking out of the building and was stopped by the two officers. They told him “this guy’s an anarchist, look what he did to your building, would you be willing to make a statement so we can arrest him”? The man responded “oh he’s an anarchist?” “Did you know that the anarchists were really powerful in Barcelona in the 1930’s?” … He then proceeded to give them a whole rundown of the Spanish Civil War, continuing to say “but, I’m not an anarchist, I’m a social democrat, and I’m just a volunteer so I can’t really give a statement” before walking away.
Frustrated and dumbfounded, these two cops looked at each other and stood there in agony waiting to be rescued. A police cruiser then pulled up asking if the two younger cops needed some assistance. The female officer then approached the vehicle as a male cop came walking out towards me. He and the younger cop who had been left behind, took turns playing “bad cop - bad cop” with me for a while. Eventually the other officer came back, and waited for the two officers in the cruiser to drive away. She then took the other cop behind a parked vehicle, so that I was not supposed to hear them. Other than murmurings I was only able to make out “they said, don’t listen to Val!” They came back saying that they were going to “give me a break” and “let me off with a ticket”, I then let them know that this was what was usually supposed to happen, but they assured me that they really were doing me a favor. They removed my handcuffs and ordered me to dump out my wheat paste (which I did). The whole ordeal lasted a little less than an hour.
So it is now, eleven months later that I find myself in the ironic position of writing this essay. I would imagine that since it came out in my disclosure that I was “a known activist”, and that the poster I put up had things like “totalitarianism as democracy” and “native land claims”, you were curious as to what I might think on this subject, or perhaps you are hoping that I am seeing some kind of error in my ways, in either case, I won’t attempt to put words in your mouth.
Are there any limits to free expression in a democratic society? I think I’d rather start by answering the question: should there be limits to free expression in any society? I would argue yes, absolutely if the free expression of an individual or group is contributing to the oppression of others.
For example if neo-nazis are attempting to organize or are inciting hatred of others, I would hope to stop them in any way possible. The democratic society we live in however does not have these values. When the MV Sun Sea arrived on the shores of this country, in August, 2010 carrying 492 Tamil migrants fleeing genocide in Sri Lanka, the corporate media started a high profile fear campaign as our government is jailing them right to this day. During all of this, Paul Fromm (perhaps one of Canada most prominent neo-nazi organizers), was quoted in a number of corporate media outlets including CTV with no mention (or warning) of his organizing as a white supremacist. In the Toronto Star Fromm was quoted: “If we do need immigrants, the public opinion polls show that the majority of Canadians don’t want the ethnic balance upset”. Of course this is not surprising as Canada is a society based on the displacement, and genocide of the Native population, and has had a long history of hostility towards non-white settlers, going all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Are there any limits to free expression in a capitalist democratic society, such as Canada? I would argue yes, absolutely and the most obvious limits are economic. There is an old saying “time is money”, this can also be extended to space. Time and space equal money. If you have no money then you will generally have no time or space, in this logic, expression is my no means “free.”
As you brought up in court, there is legal postering on legal poles provided by the city. When someone spends the time and resources to work on something they find important, and put the word out through posters; they are then put at a disadvantage when competing with the majority of the event promoters using paid labour, to cover the legal poles. You are literally lucky if your poster stays visible for a full 24 hours. As far as I’m concerned, my ideas, and the events that I hope to draw people to are far more important than “booty camp fitness”, or any rock show or interpretive dance performance sponsored by the Georgia Straight.
Another thing that was brought up was how The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “guarantees” me freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. When one is watching television, or leaving their house they are automatically bombarded with corporate advertisements and propaganda. If one has no money to buy public space, the means by which they claim that space, whether for housing, leisure time, or expression is likely to be illegal, as was the case in this postering incident. Of course I would never expect The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to exclude property rights, so I don’t expect the charter to guarantee me these freedoms. I won’t attempt to find solutions to this problem with this essay, only to point out the absurdity of “freedoms” in a capitalist society.
Now this may seem as though I’m going off on a tangent but I wonder how “free” expression can be when people are so often denied knowledge of self. The same way that black history, or the realities of colonization are left out or paid lip service to on corporate television, or in private and state-run schools, so too are the histories of all people in the bottom rungs of a hierarchical society. Working class people of all ethnicities aren’t taught about the life and death struggle for the eight hour work day. White people aren’t taught about famines caused by the capitalist system in Europe, or witch hunts to spread and impose misogyny, nor are they taught how the ruling classes in Europe and in colonies around the world killed two birds with one stone by sending a revolting peasantry and proletariat off to a far away land to occupy and steal it away from indigenous people defending their territories and way of life. It’s no wonder that the state and the corporations were so easily able to whip up fear around the Tamil migrants this summer, and it’s no wonder that a prominent neo-nazi was able to get such widespread and mainstream attention, because free speech, and freedom of expression are a joke when ignorance prevails! Yes, I intend to argue that this concept that what is legal is what has been paid for, is exactly the reason that misogyny, poverty and racism are so prevalent in our society. If expression, thought, and association were truly free, these problems would disappear and the capitalist system would not be able to function.
Finally, not being able to pay the money for the ticket, I was relatively relieved, and somewhat amused to instead be ordered to write this essay. Although I didn’t stick around to find out, I would highly doubt that the man in court that day who was facing the charge of “vending without a license” was given the same option as me. Beyond just freedom of expression, people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are regularly denied the means to survival. As capitalism and colonization spread through Europe and eventually around the world, all cultures and human arrangements that existed outside of patriarchy and privatization of land had to be brutally crushed. Thanks to "civil city" Vancouver’s police forces today are given the extra support to sweep poverty and methods of autonomous (without government, or permission from authority) living and expression off the streets, people vending their dumpstered items are given tickets while overpriced art studios, hair salons, restaurants, and cafés move in. Since vendors, and poor people jaywalking (etc.) can’t pay the money for the tickets, they are then sentenced to slave labour cleaning streets, otherwise known as “community service.” It is in full solidarity with everyone in those courtrooms daily who like me are facing the state’s white washing, through police harassment and confinement, or ticketing that I bring up this point.
Yes there are limits to free expression in a democratic society, and just like the democratic society itself that facilitates capitalism, I find them to be hypocritical and illegitimate.
Yours truly, Lliam B