City Beautiful?

Free speech or free ad?

That's the crux of the matter between some free speech advocates and city councillors who want to ban posters on hydro poles in Toronto.

Two years ago, the Toronto Public Space Committee (TPSC) won the fight to keep hydro poles covered with ads promoting everything from (insert unsigned garage band here) to (insert sex & violence cartoon festival here.) City councillors had it wrong. These often torn up and crudely taped lifelines of culture were not the work of opportunistic vandals as some of them suggested. They were expressions of freedom.

Click next and today we have the same debate at city council. And once again the TPSC has stepped up, opposing what it calls an attack on culture, multiculturalism, and freedom of expression.

To be denied a voice is undoubtedly an unjust imposition. We've all felt the weight of being silenced through unwanted discipline or our acquiescence to the intimidation brought on by others. But we are kidding ourselves if we think that by banning advertisements (and that's what they really are) from the public's utility poles that we are denying ourselves an outlet for meaningful expression or attacking culture. There are countless ways to express one's self other than at the expense of a public that has to foot the bill year round for cleaning the sticky mess people leave encrusted on a pole intended to light up streets.

To would be flamers: Please inform me how a missing sign for Fluffy the cat or guitar lessons from Dave can pass for culture any more than the sensory explosion of would-be consumer bliss turning Dundas Square into a 24 hour a day fireworks display. In Fluffy's case, its owners are trying to recruit you to find the cat that they lost. And Dave has to pay the rent so those lessons aren't free.

How many of these expressions of freedom that you see are just that? I'm not being rhetorical. There are some poignant and provocative prints out there and a local mag called Spacing makes a good if not too forgiving case for keeping paper on poles.

But rallying against the by-law to ban posters on hydro poles may not be the freedom loving revolutionary cause it's made out to be. As Dylan Reid points out at spacing it's already illegal to post signs on telephone booths and public parking meters. That hasn't deterred people from scattering what Reid calls a kind of postering archaeology of fragments and layers of past announcements.

Taken in an urban and architectural context, his argument for art and past preservation makes sense. Viewed another way, these signs are an offence to a public's freedom from information. Whether you were sold on a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show from a poster stuck to a public lamp post or taking the tykes to see Sponge Bob Square Pants because of a billboard facing Times Square North, both are trying to sell you on something, and the Toronto Public Space Committee does its cause a disservice by not acknowledging this fact.

Have your say at city hall. Check out the council schedule or comment here at blogTO.

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