A potential ban on large “advocacy messaging” displays near Calgary schools is headed to city council after a debate in a council committee meeting on Wednesday.
The amendments to the Temporary Signs on Highways Bylaw would prohibit signs larger than three-and-a-half by five inches that display “messaging that publicly expresses an opinion on an issue or cause” from being within 150 metres of school property.
According to the proposed changes, the bylaw would be in effect on days that school is in session between 7:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.
However, the changes do not ban any type of advocacy messaging or protests near schools.
“What we’re really trying to do is restrict very organized legal entities from pushing messages that are harmful to a captive audience of children who have no ability to restrict or no ability to cushion themselves from consuming deliberately shocking and harmful imagery,” said Gian-Carlo Carra, Ward 9 city councillor and chair of the community and protective services committee.
The proposed bylaw does not apply to private property. The fines for non-compliance are up to $1,000.
Debate began on the issue early last year after video surfaced online of a clash between students and anti-abortion demonstrators carrying large, graphic signs at Queen Elizabeth High School and Elementary School.
According to council documents, several Calgary schools told city administration that large graphic signs have had a serious and negative impact on vulnerable students, and created a harmful effect on teaching and learning at the schools.
The Canadian Centre of Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), a group that opposes abortion and regularly stages anti-abortion gatherings outside high schools in Calgary, said the proposed bylaw changes are frustrating and disappointing.
CCBR’s western outreach director Cameron Côté was the only public speaker at Wednesday’s committee meeting, telling councillors the new rules go too far and hinder the group’s advocacy.
“This is a bylaw that is very clear to prohibit our activism from being within a reasonable corridor or school,” Côté said.
“Legal aid shared that we’re welcome to share before 7:30 a.m. or after 9 p.m., which is certainly not our goal when it’s coming to engage high school students who are making these decisions themselves about their own lives.”
The Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF) said it has not taken an official stance on the proposed bylaw changes, but that the organization would be monitoring the progress of the bylaw as it’s forwarded to council.
City staff said council may restrict freedom of expression in limited ways and in appropriate circumstances where there is a proper justification to do so.
However, CCF litigation director Christine Van Geyn said the organization is always concerned with any government action that appears to be an infringement on the right to freedom of expression.
“It has to be minimally impairing, it has to be proportionate,” Van Geyn said.
“I’m not quite sure that the benefit of preventing students from seeing unwanted images is an important enough value to impair the right to students to have protests outside their schools or teachers to carry, for example, signs during a strike.”
Under the proposed bylaw amendments, school-led protests or displays would also be restricted.
Ward 11 city councillor Jeromy Farkas put forward a referral to exempt students from the bylaw; that motion was defeated 5-1.
“It’s disturbing to me that council would want to do something for the students, but through this big loophole actually restrict their ability to participate in democracy,” Farkas said after Wednesday’s meeting.
“At the end of the day, this bylaw is intended to protect students, but we need to make sure that they still have the ability to advance and further their own interests.”
Carra said council is trying to strike a balance between protecting students, while not restricting the messenger.
“The entire argument that we’re making is that you have a captive audience that has no ability to decide that they want to be subjected to certain messaging or not, and that certain messaging can be harmful,” Carra said.
“It’s not the messenger that we’re regulating, it’s the messaging, and schools have the right to decide what takes place on their grounds, but they do not have the right to regulate the public streets right outside of their grounds.”
The proposed changes to the bylaw were carried 5-1 in committee and will now go to city council for a final decision.