Commercial Speech, Content Regulation / Censorship
BestWater International GmBH v. Mebes
Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of Canada held that an appeal should have been granted to an individual accused of violating a municipal by-law and that certain phrases in the by-law were invalid. Roger Guignard was charged by the City of Saint-Hyacinthe for violating a zoning by-law when he displayed a sign on his property expressing his disappointment with his insurance policy. Guignard appealing citing section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court reasoned that consumers have the right to counter-advertising, which is a form of freedom of expression that includes criticizing a product. Hence, the Court noted that the by-law restricted freedom of expression and was not legal under section 1 of the Canadian Charter.
The appellant was Roger Guignard and the respondent was City of Saint-Hyacinthe.In 1996 the appellant owned property in the City of Saint-Hyacinthe and held an insurance policy that was issued by the Commerce Group that protected the property. The appellant claimed an indemnity due to a loss that occurred in May 1996, but the payment was delayed and the appellant subsequently displayed a sign on his property that expressed his disappointment.
On August 8, 1996, a municipal instructor gave the appellant twenty four hours to remove the sign because it violated the zoning by-law that prohibited placing advertising signs outside an industrial area (Règlement d’urbanisme no 1200 de la Ville de Saint-Hyacinthe, s. 14.1.5(p)). The appellant refused to comply so the municipality charged him with contravening the by-law.
When the appellant was charged the appellant’s insurer applied to the civil courts for an interlocutory injunction. The interlocutory injunction required the appellant to remove his sign and the Superior Court granted the application and ordered the sign to come down.
On March 10, 1998, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the Superior Court’s judgment. The Quebec Court of Appeal held that the sign was not defamatory and that the appellant’s right to freedom of expression Mr. Guignard’s freedom of expression must take precedence.
The Municipal Court found that the by-law prohibited the type of sign that the appellant had placed on his property and convicted the appellant. The Superior Court and the Court of Appeal held that the by-law did not violate the constitution. The Supreme Court suspended the declaration of invalidity for six months and held that “section 14.1.5(p) and the definition of the words ‘enseigne’ (sign) and ‘enseigne publicitaire’ (advertising sign) in s.2.2.4 of the by-law were invalid.” [pg.473]
The Supreme Court believes that freedom of expression is necessary to develop society and is owed to every citizen. Also, the Supreme Court states, that commercial enterprises have the constitutional right to advertise since commercial expression is protected by s. 2(b) of the Charter and consumers have the right to counter advertising ( a form of freedom of expression that includes criticizing a product). The Supreme Court believes that economic activity is very important in our society and counter-advertising circulates information and protects society’s interests as much as other forms of political expression. Therefore, restricting this right to certain areas infringes on freedom of expression ( especially on the freedom of expression of low-income individuals). The Supreme Court acknowledges that the by-law ( regardless of its intent) if applied literally, would make it impossible for any individual to post signs that criticized the conduct of a business.
The Supreme Court noted that the by-law is not legal under s.1 of the Charter and that the rational connection between the by-law and its objective was not established even though maintaining good visual aesthetics is a reasonable concern. The Supreme Court stated,” the by-law prohibits only those signs that expressly indicate the trade name of a commercial enterprise in residential areas. All other types of signs of a more generic nature, although they are just as polluting from a visual point of view, are exempt from the by-law.” [pg.474] In regards to minimal impairment, the Supreme Court stated that the by-law is not a sensible decision because it severely hampers the appellant’s right to freedom of expression and the benefit that it secures to the municipality is not worth the infringement on freedom of expression.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands expression because the Supreme Court held that the appeal should have been allowed and also held that, ” the definition of the words “enseigne”(sign) and “enseigne publicitaire” (advertising sign) in s.2.2.4 of the by-law are invalid.” [pg.473]
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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada are binding precedent on all lower courts in Canada.
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