Surrey charter changes to restrict political signage challenged in British Columbia court

A group of Surrey, British Columbia residents are challenging recent bylaw amendments that limit their ability to display political posters on their private property.

Their petition, heard Tuesday in British Columbia’s Supreme Court in Vancouver, argues that the changes passed by Surrey County Councilors last October violate their charter-protected right to freedom of expression.

The controversial amendments expanded the municipality’s definition of political signage to include citizen initiatives and set strict deadlines for when such signage could be posted.

“The effect of these amendments, my clients say, was that there are certain issues that are not subject to specific elections that can never be subject to political signals,” said Kevin Smith, Farris LLP partner and group lawyer. “These signs are completely prohibited.”

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On 18 October, Surrey Council approved the charter amendments by a narrow margin of five to four. All council members outside Mayor Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition voted against.

The changes allow residents to post political signs after the federal or provincial election period, or the start of the nomination period for elections or local government and school district by-elections. Citizens can also post posters since plebiscites or referendums have been held.

Signs relating to petitions of recall or initiative may be posted after the petition has been approved by the Olx Praca Elections Officer. All signs must be removed within two weeks of voting.

British Columbian Ombudsman criticizes Surrey council’s decisions

British Columbian Ombudsman criticizes Surrey council’s decisions

Matthew Voell, a lawyer representing the City of Surrey, declined to comment on the story while the case is pending in court. In court, he said that Surrey did not ban political signage and suggested that there was disagreement in the interpretation of the amendments.

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Ivan Scott, one of six members of the Leave the RCMP in Surrey group who filed the petition, said they “draw a line in the sand” in court on Tuesday.

“This is important because there is someone out there in Surrey who has taken democracy to another low level and we want to take it back,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.

“I think we have a really good case, we got support from everywhere in Surrey.”

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For many months, members of Keep the RCMP in Surrey posted posters on their lawns against the city’s transition from the Mounties to a new municipal police force.

Seven members of the group, including Scott, were banned from city council meetings in September 2021, a move intended to “protect the democratic process,” McCallum said at the time. The council then requested an injunction to prevent them from appearing.

Six of the seven banned residents responded with a petition asking for the resolution to ban them to be lifted. They also filed a separate petition to repeal the October bylaw amendments regarding political signage.

Surrey Council stopped considering the court’s request for an injunction and withdrew its residents’ injunction order. Hearings in the case of political signs will continue on April 27.

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With files from Toby Kerr, Janet Brown and John Azpiri of Olx Praca.

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