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City committee aims to curb street harassment, verbal abuse with bylaw tweak

A city committee has voted to beef up London's nuisance by-law to crack down on street harassment, including abusive comments from a group of street preachers who frequent Victoria Park and other areas downtown.
A city committee has voted to beef up London's nuisance by-law to crack down on street harassment, including abusive comments from a group of street preachers who frequent Victoria Park and other areas downtown. 980 CFPL

If you spend any time in downtown London, you’ve likely seen and heard a small group of people who preach on street corners.

The city has received dozens of complaints about the individuals and the offensive statements they make as people walk by.

During its meeting on Tuesday, the community and protective services committee moved forward with an attempt to curb the haranguing by endorsing a recommendation from staff to beef up London’s nuisance bylaw to include street harassment.

In their report, staff said the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a ruling from the Niagara region that banned abusive behaviour that “unnecessarily interferes with the use and enjoyment of a Park by other persons.”

Under the London proposal, if someone were to be caught hurling abuse at others they could face a $750 ticket.

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The proposed changes also include amending the rules surrounding amplified sound to require anyone who wants to use a loudspeaker to apply for a permit.

RELATED: Should you need a permit to use a loudspeaker in public?

Mayor Matt Brown said during the meeting Londoners shouldn’t have to face verbal abuse when they go out.

“People from our community, mothers and fathers, individuals and children should expect to be able to go to public spaces and not see people being personally verbally abused,” said Brown.

Brown said his office, the bylaw department and city police have all received dozens of complaints about the individuals who often use megaphones and speakers to spread their message.

He said anyone who finds themselves being accosted shouldn’t engage in confrontation but should report the incident to city bylaw officers and the London Police Service.

“Unless this is reported it can’t be tracked,” Brown said during the meeting.

Coun. Mo Salih asked staff about some of the legal implications that could come about as a result of amending the bylaw. He questioned whether individuals could say the provision violated their right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Staff said in their report that if a municipality wants to limit the freedom, it would have to be a “reasonable¬†limit prescribed by law and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Staff advised further discussion should take place in camera.

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Coun. Jesse Helmer voiced his support for updating the bylaw saying it’s not acceptable for residents to have to put up with abusive language being hurled at them.

He told his colleagues he spoke with a couple of the individuals engaged in the preaching activities in the past when they came to city hall to ask for a possible crackdown on their behaviour.

Helmer said he asked them whether they’d considered putting an end to saying “really insulting, vile things,” to people.

“They’re clearly not willing to do that,” Helmer said. “Unfortunately, it just keeps going on and on.”

City council will review the recommendation from staff and the community and protective services committee during its meeting on Tuesday, June 12.