News | Business owners strike back at billboard ban

Media companies band together to oppose new Plateau bylaw

On September 10, a meeting took place between three major media companies – Astral Media, CBS, and Jim Pattinson Industries Ltd – to decide how to proceed in the face of a new bylaw banning billboards in the Plateau Mont-Royal borough.

The bylaw gives the landlords of the 45 billboards in the borough, and the companies leasing ad space from them, one year beginning in November 2010 to remove their advertisements.

The September 7 decision comes on the heels of an earlier bylaw that came into effect in July preventing the construction of any additional billboards.

Media companies who rent billboard space were taken by surprise by the latest bylaw, saying they were not given warning.

“They never called us,” said Jeannot Lefebvre, spokesperson for the Regroupement de l’industrie de l’affichage extérieur du Québec and Real Estate Director of CBS Affichage. “Only the boroughs made that call [to ban billboards]. In July the article for outdoor [commercial activity] was redone, a month and a half later it is to change,” he said.

Lefebvre spoke on behalf of the three major media companies that attended the September 10 meeting.

He described the outcome of the meeting between Astral, CBS and Jim Pattinson: “Our lawyer is preparing letters to send to the mayor. The next step is to have a meeting with these people [councillors].”

“We prefer to have a meeting with [the] City to have a good conversation or we will go do our own thing. We won’t wait; we [will] take measures to preserve our business,” Lefebvre continued.

Lefebvre does not expect the three media companies to accept the ban. “I don’t think we will take them [the billboards] down. We will fight,” Lefebvre said.

Alex Norris, Projet Montreal (PM) councillor for Mile End, says council is not backing down.

“Our hands are not tied,” he said. “[We are] free to act to defend public interest against private interest [that] might be offended. [We are] an activist administration [looking] to improve the quality of life in the community.”

“We assumed high tax revenues [were what] justified [billboards] being there,” Norris continued. The City of Montreal receives $40,000 in tax revenues from billboards every year. Individual billboards bring in roughly $1,000 a year in taxes. Norris called the sum a “pittance.” Landlords with billboards on their properties rent the space to media companies, who in turn rent the ad space to other companies whose ads are displayed. Norris said he spoke to a landlord who received $8,000 a month from the media companies renting the billboard space.

Lefebvre defended the public contribution billboards make.

“A lot [of people are] involved. The landlord we pay rent to? They live in the Plateau,” he pointed out.

Lefebvre also contends that the bylaw violates the right of the affected media companies to freedom of expression, as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Norris called Lefebvre’s Charter argument “ludicrous.” “The constitutional freedom of expression [argument] will not stand up in court,” he said. “What is being snuffed out? What can’t be expressed elsewhere?”

McGill Law Professor Colleen Sheppard explained that bans on the “time, place and manner,” of expression can be constitutional, as long as a court determines that the ban is in some way “justified.”

“Since it is likely that the advertising restrictions would be considered an infringement of freedom of expression,” she wrote in an email, “it is necessary to consider whether the infringement is ‘reasonable’ and ‘demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society’ – to use the words of the Canadian Charter.”

Sheppard did not state whether she thought the ban was constitutional or not.

Norris said the reaction to the bylaw from residents of the borough has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“[It is] the most popular thing we’ve done to date. Montrealers agree we should take pride in our city, not deface it with these kinds of eyesores.”