Vancouver, Canada - Vancouver Falun Gong practitioners have filed a petition with the Supreme Court of B.C. asking that a Vancouver city bylaw dealing with protest structures be declared unconstitutional.
The bylaw "has thoroughly disabled our freedom of expression" and "fundamentally rendered our protest outside the Chinese Consulate General ineffective," Vancouver Falun Dafa Association representative Sue Zhang said at a press conference Thursday.
The issue has been mired in controversy since 2001, when the Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa - a spiritual movement banned as a cult in China - first set up banners in front of the Chinese consulate in Vancouver and began a 300-hour hunger strike and sit-in. The protest evolved into a 24-hour vigil, seven days a week, in a "meditation hut" measuring one metre by two metres.
The group was protesting alleged "genocide" against members in China.
In 2006 then mayor Sam Sullivan sought an injunction requiring the removal of the Falun Gong's protest billboard and hut on grounds that the structures violated a bylaw prohibiting structures to be built on city streets.
In 2009, the injunction was granted, but the Falun Gong appealed, arguing the structure was a form of political expression protected by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Court of Appeal struck down a portion of the bylaw and gave the city six months to develop a new bylaw that would regulate protest structures on public property without impinging on peoples' political rights or the contents of their messages.
This new version of the bylaw was passed in April this year. At the time Mayor Gregor Robertson said he believed the newest version of the bylaw "strikes a much better balance." Civil Liberties groups, however, disagreed and said that the bylaw continued to restrict political expression.
The new bylaw required, among other things, that protest structures be limited to 4 by 5 by 3 feet in size and required them to be dismantled every 12 hours. In addition, the structures were allowed be put up only for 30 days at a time, but could be re-established every 60 days.
The size restrictions and the requirement to take down the structure every 12 hours is an attempt by the city to impede free political expression said David Eby, director of the B.C. Liberties Association, at the news conference.
The arbitrary nature of the implementation of the law was clear, he said, from the way in which the city administration was dealing with Occupy Vancouver protests. The fact that the protesters in Occupy Vancouver were not occupying sidewalks was a mere technicality, he said.
It was clear that the law was aimed specifically at preventing the Falun Gong from protesting in front of the Chinese Consulate General, said Falun Gong lawyer Clive Ansley at the Thursday news conference.
"The clear reason for the ongoing litigation in this matter ... really boils down to the fact, that since the administration of Sam Sullivan in 2006, city council in Vancouver has been prepared to put the interests and comfort of a foreign government well ahead of the interests of Canadian citizens in free speech and civil liberties," said Ansley.