Canadian Falun Gong adherents have scored a victory for free speech after a section of a city bylaw prohibiting the group’s protest signs and small hut in front of the Chinese consulate in Vancouver was struck down as unconstitutional on Tuesday.
The City of Vancouver was granted an injunction requiring the removal of the structures outside the consulate on Granville St. in 2006 after a British Columbia Supreme Court judge ruled that they constituted an obstruction.
Falun Gong practitioners appealed, arguing that the signs and hut were an essential part of their protest and a form of political expression protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I am very happy with the decision,” said Sue Zhang, one of the appellants.
“We were in court back and forth for four years and I think this shows the court has upheld the Canadian Charter of Rights by declaring the bylaw unconstitutional.”
The court struck down the bylaw, but suspended its action for six months to allow the city to “review its regulatory approach.”
“The court gave the city six months to enact a new bylaw that would comply with the constitution, and in the meantime said that the Falun Gong could now apply to the city to put its vigil back up,” says Vancouver lawyer Joe Arvay, who acted for Falun Gong.
“The city now has to exercise its discretion in a manner that is consistent with the charter.”
Arvay adds that most constitutional cases have “great significance” because they have a broader application than merely to the parties concerned.
“The Falun Gong have won a victory for freedom of expression for all people in British Columbia,” said Arvay.
City engineer Peter Judd told the Globe and Mail that the city intends to draw up a new bylaw that conforms to the appeal court’s decision.
“Falun Gong has been pretty good all along, and we support their right to free expression,” Judd said. “It’s just the method they used that gave us some concern.”
Vancouver Falun Gong practitioners started a round-the-clock vigil outside the consulate in August 2001 to appeal for their persecuted family and friends in China where their spiritual discipline, also called Falun Dafa, was banned in 1999.
The so-called “blue wall” along the consulate fence displayed posters calling for an end to the persecution in China, depictions of torture methods used in Chinese labour camps, and pictures of slain practitioners.
The Appeal Court ruling said that the chambers judge found that in modern China, persecution of practitioners is “widely documented” with reports of “police harassment, summary arrest and imprisonment without charge, physical violence, torture, and killing to harvest organs.”
Throughout the four-year case, the Falun Gong group’s lawyers consistently argued that the city’s efforts to get rid of the protest structures had more to do with pressure from the Chinese consulate and the authorities in Beijing than with a bylaw.
Arvay told the court in November 2008 that after former mayor Sam Sullivan took office the city began to pressure Falun Gong practitioners to remove their protest, primarily because of the messaging on the signs and banners affixed to the consulate fence.
Arvay told of the close relationship that existed between Sullivan, a fluent Cantonese speaker, and ex-Chinese Consular General Yang Qiang, including the fact that Sullivan and his parents were guests at a private dinner at Yang’s residence where the protest site was discussed.
In the Appeals Court decision, the chambers judge did not find evidence that the city’s motivation to enforce the bylaw was a result of pressure from the Chinese regime.
Zhang however is not convinced.
“We still believe the whole issue was because of the influence of the Chinese regime,” she said.
Many cities in Canada and around the world with similar displays outside consulates and embassies have encountered pressure from Chinese authorities, Falun Dafa Association of Canada says. The regime has pressured both Toronto and Ottawa to remove the protest sites in those cities.
Intolerant of the rapidly growing popularity of Falun Gong, the Chinese Communist Party has maintained an ongoing campaign of persecution against the group since 1999, which has led to the imprisonment, torture, and deaths of thousands of adherents.