Landowners appeal court ruling that disregards their free expression rights in favour of subjective aesthetics

CALGARY:  Foothills County landowners and local advertising business, Spot Ads Inc. are appealing a decision of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta that will force the removal of all trailer signs on private property within the County.

The Court of Queen’s Bench ruled on September 8, 2020 that the County’s subjective views of aesthetics justifies violating the constitutionally protected right of freedom of expression of landowners on their own property. Despite finding that the bylaw infringes freedom of expression, the Court upheld a Foothills County bylaw that bans all trailer signs, including signs on private property that communicate personal and political messages to the public.

The case began in 2019, when the Justice Centre filed a court application seeking a declaration that the bylaw prohibiting trailer signs on privately owned land was unconstitutional and an unjustifiable infringement of freedom of expression as protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Foothills County claims trailer billboard signs are displeasing to look at and disruptive to the view of the countryside, despite the clean appearance of the trailer signs and no evidence of complaints from County residents. Roadside signs such as trailer signs are common along Alberta highways, as they are a particularly effective means of communicating with the public.

The Justice Centre argued that a blanket prohibition against a particular type of sign unjustifiably infringes freedom of expression. The bylaw not only impacts 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 County had threatened to enter landowners’ private property on Christmas Eve in 2019 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 until the court ruled on the constitutionality of bylaw.

One of the landowners represented by the Justice Centre, Gerrit and Jantje Top have had a trailer sign on their property for 14 years, using it to communicate to the public their personal and political views regarding abortion. They are hoping to save their sign, which will permanently come down if the Court of Queen’s Bench decision stands.

“The lower court erred in prioritizing unsupported claims of aesthetics over the fundamental freedom of expression. Citizens have a constitutional right to free expression, and for good reason. But citizens have no right, constitutional or otherwise, to not see trailer signs,” states Justice Centre lawyer James Kitchen.

“We look forward to appealing this case to the Court of Appeal of Alberta,” concludes Kitchen.