In May 2019, the Justice Centre filed a court application challenging the constitutionality of an Alberta municipality’s bylaw which prohibits signs attached to the sides of transport truck trailers. The court application was filed on behalf of landowners and an advertising business, whom the Justice Centre is representing pro bono, against Foothills County, a rural county south of Calgary that has several major highways running through it. The Applicants use trailer signs placed on private land adjacent to major highways to communicate personal, political and commercial messages to the public. The County’s trailer-sign-prohibiting bylaw infringes freedom of expression as protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
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.
The Applicants sought a declaration that the trailer-sign-prohibiting bylaw be struck down, as it unjustifiably infringes freedom of expression. A date was set for the hearing of the challenge to the bylaw before the Court of Queen’s Bench, but, following the County’s delay in filing materials, it was adjourned to February 19, 2020. Once the adjournment was confirmed, the County began, for the fist time, to enforce the challenged bylaw by issuing $2,000 tickets and Stop Orders to remove the trailer signs. As a result, the Justice Centre sought and was granted by the Court an injunction, preventing the County from enforcing the bylaw against the Applicants until the hearing.
A disappointing ruling issued by the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta on September 8, 2020 forced 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. 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.
An appeal to the Court of Appeal of Alberta has been filed. The Justice Centre will argue that the Court of Queen’s Bench judge erred, that his decision should be overturned, and that the trailer sign bylaw be struck down. A hearing before the Court of Appeal is expected to occur in the summer of 2021.
“Citizens in a free society should be able to express themselves on their own private property,” said Justice Centre lawyer James Kitchen. “Trailer billboard signs along highways are a particularly effective means of communicating with the public that should not be censored through bylaws,” continued Mr. Kitchen.