Court ruling upholds Alberta bylaw that bans trailer signs on private land


CALGARY: The Justice Centre is disappointed with a ruling issued by the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta that will force the removal of many roadside signs alongside major highways in Foothills County, including signs on private property that communicate personal and political messages to the public. In a concerning example of court-sanctioned censorship of free expression, the Court of Queen’s Bench upheld a bylaw that prohibits all roadside trailer billboard signs.

Foothills County regards the trailer billboard signs as displeasing to look at and disruptive to the view of the countryside surrounding the highways that run through the County. Roadside signs, including trailer signs, are common along Alberta highways. An abundance of signs, as one of society’s most important and effective means of communication, is a defining characteristic of free societies such as Canada. The Justice Centre argued that a blanket prohibition against a particular type of sign infringes freedom of expression. The bylaw doesn’t only impact commercial advertising, it also prevents landowners from using trailer signs on their own private property to communicate messages to the public or express their political beliefs.

In its ruling, the Court of Queen’s Bench decided that the Counties’ subjective views of aesthetics justify violating the constitutionally-protected right of freedom of expression of landowners on their own property.

The case began in 2019, when the Justice Centre filed a court application on behalf of rural landowners and a local business seeking a declaration that the Foothills County bylaw prohibiting trailer signs was unconstitutional and an unjustifiable infringement of freedom of expression as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The County had threatened to enter the landowner’s private property on Christmas Eve and forcibly remove the signage.

A court injunction was obtained by the Justice Centre on December 20, 2019 preventing the County from enforcing the bylaw against the applicants until the matter was heard on February 19, 2020. The ruling issued Tuesday, September 8, 2020, is a disappointment to Spot Ads, one of the applicants challenging the bylaw.

Spot Ads provides affordable, alternative roadside signage to businesses and organizations seeking to advertise their services or communicate a personal or political message to the public. With Alberta in a deep economic recession, Spot Ads believes that its service is even more important to Albertans.

Landowners often use the trailers to earn income from their land. Gerrit and Jantje Top, represented by the Justice Centre in this action, have had a trailer sign on their property for 14 years, and they use it to communicate to the public their personal and political views regarding abortion. It is legal to park a trailer on one’s own property. The Bylaw in question only applies to remove any expression, sign, or image that is placed on a stationary trailer.

“The Constitution protects freedom of expression, including a right to communicate effectively with the public through the use of signs. In siding with the County, the Court has used subjective aesthetics to justify government censorship and intrusion in the lives of private citizens on their own land,” states Justice Centre lawyer James Kitchen.

“We are reviewing the decision,” notes Kitchen.