July 25, 2018 8:50 am

London city council pass changes to bylaw aimed at curbing street preacher harassment

Council voted 9-6 in favour of an amendment to the nuisance part of the bylaw prohibiting the unnecessary interference with use and enjoyment of a public space

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Street preachers had better pipe down or pay up.

City politicians debated changes to the sound and nuisance bylaw at council Tuesday.

The part of the bylaw that would regulate amplified sound passed 14-1, and although changes to the nuisance portion of the bylaw aimed at curbing harassment from street preachers in the downtown core raised concerns, in the end the amendment passed 9-6.

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READ MORE: London city hall set to crackdown on street preachers

But that wasn’t before some lively debate.

“I don’t believe it’s good precedent to create legislation based on the actions of a few,” said Coun. Jared Zaifman.

“Beyond street preachers, where else could this bylaw amendment be utilized? Frankly I don’t think we’ve discussed that at all,” he said.

For example, Zaifman said the bylaw could affect protests outside City Hall, where people often share different views that he says could lead to a message being construed as hateful.

The amendment separates free speech from abusive or hateful speech, but that can be a thin line to walk.

“People have the right, and we should protect it, to say whatever they want no matter how odious and offensive it is,” said Coun. Phil Squire.

“[This bylaw] is not aimed — in it’s form — at curtailing freedom of speech.”

“What it is aimed at is the use of that freedom of speech as a weapon, as a means to attack another person and interfere with their enjoyment,” he said.

The change means abusive or insulting language can now be considered a public nuisance when it prevents people from enjoying public spaces and gives bylaw officers the right to issue a minimum fine of $500.

“When we have women walking in the downtown who are admonished because they may be wearing a dress or they might be working outside the home, I wouldn’t say that is freedom of expression, I would say that’s abusive speech,” said Coun. Tanya Park.

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

But one councillor felt the revision went too far.

“I think it’s going to have a number of unintended consequences that we’ll find out, and find more annoying than the situation we’re trying to avoid,” said Coun. van Holst.

Zaifman was on a similar thread. He felt going through with the amendment could get the city into legal trouble.

“What we may be doing to the entire municipality could potentially put us in front of the courts where I could see us very likely losing,” Zaifman said.

Squire, however, thinks having a test case isn’t a bad idea.

“I don’t fear that matter being litigated. In fact, I think it would be helpful if it was litigated to provide this municipality, other municipalities and the public at large with guidance as to the limitations of a municipality in dealing with matters of freedom of speech,” Squire said.

But, Squire did say that if the bylaw is enforced arbitrarily it could cause some issues.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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