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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Civil liberties advocates warned on Wednesday that efforts to protect Olympic branding deals during next year's Winter Games in Vancouver may infringe on free speech.
They say that agreements Vancouver organizers have made with the International Olympic Committee could be used to curb legitimate political protests on issues such as the Games' impact on Vancouver's homeless people and the poor.
The agreements with the IOC, similar to ones that have been used in past Games, are designed to protect Olympic venues from being used for non-Olympic political promotions or "ambush marketing" by companies that have not paid for sponsorship rights.
To prevent the agreements from being used to thwart legitimate protests, the civil liberties groups unveiled plans on Wednesday for "legal observer teams" to patrol areas near competition venues and other events during the two weeks the Winter Games are on in February.
"The biggest concern from our perspective is the idea that for a two-week event, that we can essentially suspend free speech rights for various Canadians in an around venues," said David Eby, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
Eby said he hopes the observer teams "will be bored" with no violations to see.
The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) says it and the IOC respect free speech rights, but that it has had to strike a balance between those rights and the need to protect against commercial infringement.
"VANOC has an obligation to protect the Games sponsors and it is in the public's best interest to protect the almost C$1 billion investment by these sponsors," the committee said in a statement sent to reporters on Wednesday.
VANOC said it also has an obligation to protect event sites in Vancouver and at the mountain resort of Whistler, British Columbia, so that "athletes can compete at their very best before spectators who can fully enjoy the events".
In a separate announcement on Wednesday, VANOC said it was already seizing counterfeit merchandise illegally marketed in stores as officially licensed products.
The Canadian government has budgeted C$900 million ($841 million) for security during the Olympics, which will involve an estimated 7,000 police from across Canada, 4,500 troops, and 5,000 security guards.
The only known threat has come from a handful of groups who say the Olympics are designed to please the rich and have displaced poor residents. The groups also say the Games are being held on land taken from aboriginals by European colonists.
Eby said police planners have agreed to take the training material being provided the observer teams so it can also be available to police officers.
Security officials have talked about setting up "protest zones", where groups pushing political causes will have access to international media during the Games, but the idea has been panned by anti-Olympic groups.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, editing by Peter Galloway