Pole of confusion

Halifax’s postering bylaw is a mess of ambiguities, enforced by personal opinions. Is it time to head to court?

Eight staples per poster, four per side: that's how you'll recognize the work of Ian McRuer. He aligns the temporary signs one on top of another with a bit of space between, as if in an outdoor gallery. He picks up fallen, soaked and crumpled posters from the ground, though it isn't his job, and tears down old ones from past events.

"I'm not trying to make the city look like garbage---I'm trying to add to it in its own artistic way," says McRuer, who once broke his hand stapling a sign.

Postering, which has paid McRuer's rent for the last four years, is technically illegal in Halifax. Regardless of its message, the poster medium results in litter, according to a Halifax Regional Municipality bylaw, and the person, festival or venue responsible can be fined up to $250 per poster, while the person caught postering can be fined $478 on the spot. Every few years the zeal to enforce the bylaw spikes, most recently due to a complaint by a city councillor. The bylaw office refused to divulge the councillor's name without a freedom of information request.

And so now, 200 posters for a cancer benefit at the Palace are piled in McRuer's red living room. "Unfortunately they can't go up," he says. Though the non-profit organizers will take a hit from printing and design costs, they can't afford the threat of fines.

On July 23, HRM fined Jonas Colter $4,500 under the Temporary Signs Bylaw for blanketing city poles with purple Evolve Festival posters. Colter was unavailable for comment. Last week the city threatened to fine one of McRuer's clients, The Paragon Theatre.

"Artists have been postering to promote for as long as live shows have existed in Halifax," artist and Paragon spokesperson Peter Farmer said in an email. "If we take away postering campaigns from them it will affect their ability to advertise and will stunt the growth of a talented city."

McRuer can be fined nearly $500 for putting up a single poster, but it's never happened. He's successfully debated police officers threatening fines by explaining a case that reached the Supreme Court of Canada. Now any time a cruiser pulls up, the officers inside just want to know what shows to see this weekend.

In the '90s, the city of Peterborough charged Kenneth Ramsden for advertising his band via posters on hydro poles. He fought the charges on the grounds that the city's bylaw infringed on his constitutionally protected right to free speech. The case wound up before the Ontario Court of Appeal and the charges were overturned. The Supreme Court upheld the precedent in 1993.

The highest court's test asks first whether postering constitutes expression and second whether the purpose of the bylaw is to restrict freedom of expression. The court found postering to be a form of expression because it conveys some meaning, but the second part of the test when applied to Halifax is not so clear. The city provides 11 public bulletin boards---some of which resemble giant phalluses---on which Haligonians may poster legally, in effect allowing free speech in designated areas.

But find a Halifax Pop Explosion poster on any given telephone pole and you'll spot the pinky-nail-sized HRM logo alongside those of the provincial and federal governments. The city also puts up posters advertising Natal Day, Canada Day, the concerts on the Common and many other city-sponsored events. McRuer's got the proof.

"I've been collecting them for about a year now," he says, flipping through a stack of paper about two inches thick. He points out the same tiny HRM sponsor logo near the bottom. "If they're tearing all this stuff down saying it's illegal for us to be doing it, how can they be blasting their name all over it?"

HRM justifies their stance because telephone poles stand in the "right of way": the city-owned space between the street and sidewalk. Some of these poles, however, belong to Aliant or Nova Scotia Power, not the city.

Shaune MacKinlay, HRM spokesperson, admits the city posters for its own events: "We can put them up from time to time, yes."

She didn't know how many posters the city puts up, and says the bylaw enforcement would come into effect when large-scale postering is present.

"We respect the freedom of expression that someone has when putting up posters for their gigs or for their festival that they're throwing and we allow this to happen," she says, when asked how the city justifies what some might see as a hypocritical stance.

There is no quota on the number of posters allowed, instead she says it's up to an officer's discretion whether or not to fine someone.

McRuer believes the bylaw infringes on the free expression of anyone who makes or puts up a poster, which happens to include the majority of Halifax's arts scene. Pick a venue, festival, band, theatre group or poetry reading and there's a poster on a telephone pole emblazoned with its name. That's where Halifax artists come into play: McRuer says that "almost 100 percent" of his posters are designed locally.

Khyber Arts Society event organizer Grant Pardy started volunteering at the Khyber two years ago after he saw a poster advertising Monochrome. Most recently, according to a poll at the door, attendees found the Carbon Arc film series---held in the Khyber's Ballroom Gallery---through word of mouth, print ads and especially posters.

Besides advertising, Pardy says, "Posters are also just a great opportunity for creative people to exercise some creative muscle, which is wonderful in a city with minimal artistic opportunity."

In March, the Khyber held an exhibition of archived posters from the last 15 years. Pardy says,"The ballroom was covered from floor to ceiling in mostly posters. Those posters show our history. Those posters are our history."

Adam O'Reilly, a local artist and musician, has been creating posters for the Khyber lately and for his own bands, roomdoom and Duzheknew. His designs are a far cry from lost cat signs---one screen-printed poster can take up to 10 hours. On heavyweight pigeon-gray paper, O'Reilly screened layers of relaxing animal-people that look like a cross between Chagall and Keith Haring. The poster mirrored the roomdoom aesthetic in the same way a scrappy design indicates a punk show.

He sells some of his prints for hundreds of dollars as an artist, but gives screenprinted signs away for free via postering.

"I think it's a really selfless act that artists are making screenprinted posters," O'Reilly, who sees mass postering as litter, citing Evolve, The Seahorse Tavern and the Paragon's guerilla advertising as examples. He thinks the number of posters should be proportionate to the size of the event.

McRuer says the Paragon gave him 30 posters last week, hoping a much lower number than normal would show good faith and fly under the radar. However, he's not worried for his job.

"I would be totally comfortable taking fines to court to try to make a change, to set an actual precedent," he says. "People walk up after I walk away from that pole and I've seen people hoard around the pole to see what's going on, you know? It's great---it's spreading what's happening. So why would I stop?"

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