MONTREAL — Lawyers for students, community groups and trade unions in Canada’s Quebec province asked a court Tuesday to suspend an emergency law regulating protests after months of rallies over tuition hikes.
Felix-Antoine Michaud, a lawyer for the petitioners, argued in Quebec Superior Court that the law effectively outlaws spontaneous protests and is unconstitutional.
“This is contrary in our opinion to freedom of expression, a fundamental freedom that is necessary for all other freedoms,” he said.
Special Law 78 was passed on May 18 in the wake of clashes between police and students fighting an 82 percent hike in tuition at universities in the French-speaking province of eight million people.
It requires organizers to give police at least eight hours advance warning of times and locations of protest marches, with hefty fines imposed for failing to do so.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s centrist government says the law protects the peace by simply outlining where and when protests may occur.
Opponents of the law however say it breaches their rights of assembly and free expression.
“If the Italians win a Euro (UEFA) football match, people who spontaneously pour onto the streets of the city’s Italian quarter to celebrate… would be guilty of a crime,” Michaud said.
Since the special measure was adopted, Quebecers have actually taken to the streets by the thousands each night, loudly hammering on pots and pans to express their distaste for the special law they say is draconian.
More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested — but police opted to apply municipal bylaws already on the books instead of the new emergency measure to stop people, wary that it could be overturned in court.
Michaud argued that Canada’s Criminal Code and other laws already provide police with the necessary tools to maintain peace and order.
“If the police are not applying this new law, it is because it’s unnecessary,” he said.
The court’s decision is expected within a few days. Another petition to quash the hugely controversial law is also to be considered in July.
Eventually, Canada’s Supreme Court could be asked to consider whether the law is constitutional.