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London, Ont., councillors seeking options to address graphic anti-abortion flyers

London, Ont. City Hall. Matthew Trevithick / 980 CFPL File

Mounting outrage over the distribution of graphic anti-abortion flyers across London, Ont., has captured the attention of city council and could eventually result in amended or additional bylaws.

Members of the community and protective services committee endorsed a motion on Tuesday, asking city staff to look at options to address “community concerns around graphic unsolicited flyer deliveries to residential properties.”

Read more: Londoners rally outside city hall against graphic anti-abortion images, flyers

The motion, which still needs to be approved by full council, comes less than a week after the newly-formed group Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition gathered outside of London City Hall to call on local politicians to help stop the spread of the disturbing images.

Since late this summer, members of the community have been expressing anger and frustration over the flyers, distributed by the Alberta-based Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) in partnership with the local group, London Against Abortion.

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Some have shared personal stories of how the pamphlets, which claim to show images of fetuses at 10 weeks and 20 weeks, brought back traumatic memories for them or prompted difficult conversations with very young children.

CCBR has implied that the ends justify the means, telling Global News in late September that “by showing photos of healthy pre-born children before abortion and photos of children who have been decapitated, dismembered or disemboweled by abortion, we aim to make abortion unthinkable in order to save children’s lives and spare women the trauma of abortion.”

Read more: London, Ont., group fed up with graphic pamphlets to launch campaign against Alberta’s CCBR

Coun. Shawn Lewis, who co-authored Tuesday’s motion with councillors Anna Hopkins, Arielle Kayabaga, and Elizabeth Peloza, stressed that this is not an issue about abortion, though he noted that he will “always stand with women to defend their rights to reproductive freedom and choice.”

“But I have to emphasize, this is not the issue that is before us today,” he said.

“If the complaints we were receiving were, for example, a result of MADD Canada distributing flyers that showed human bodies that had been mangled in car accidents, constituents would be raising the same concerns and we would have the same problem to deal with or to consider. Of course, MADD Canada has been able to engage the public in a respectful dialogue on a very important issue as well without using those kinds of tactics.”

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Read more: Trudeau rejects criticism over Paris attack comments, says Canada defends free speech

He also argued against allegations that this was a free speech issue, saying that music albums have stickers warning of explicit lyrics, that television shows and movies have ratings, and that Canada Post requires explicit material delivered by their letter carriers to be in opaque envelops with wording noting that it contains adult materials.

“It’s well established that not all content is appropriate for all demographics and it’s reasonable to impose some requirements around questionable materials. I think it’s also very clear that it is within our jurisdiction to consider limits on activities that may impact residents’ ability to enjoy their home or community.”

Hopkins, who is not a member of the committee but attended the meeting to speak to the issue, added that she views this as an opportunity for residents to request not to receive unwanted flyers and has implications for waste reduction.

“There’s not going to be one group out there or even an individual that’s probably going to be happy with this motion. But to me, it’s a start.”

However, Coun. Phil Squire argued that the issue is a matter of freedom of speech.

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“One of the hallmarks of freedom of speech is that you have to be most vigilant about freedom of speech when the speaker is someone you absolutely abhor or don’t agree with. They have every right to deliver their message no matter what it might be, and that’s an accepted principle, frankly, that courts have said for an extended period of time.”

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Referencing the city’s handling of complaints over harassment by street preachers in London, Squire said that he will support the motion but that he expects council will have to “very, very carefully consider what we can and cannot do.”

“In (the street preachers) issue, a compromise that was developed was that we would not in any way impair the street preachers from saying what they wanted to say, no matter how objectionable, on street corners, in parks, so the people could hear them. What we did prohibit was them using it to target a particular person.”

Coun. Michael Van Holst said he was happy with parts A and B of the motion, to have staff look into what steps other municipalities have taken and to look at potential amendments to the existing municipal nuisance bylaw, respectively, but he took issue with part C, to look into the introduction of a new bylaw.

“I don’t know why we would suggest our bylaw department look at new bylaws before we find out what other municipalities have already done,” he said.

Read more: Old East Village residents furious as London City Hall struggles to address anti-abortion flyers

However, Hopkins explained that separating part C “does not make any sense in the intent of this motion.” Lewis added that the motion did not ask staff to come back with a draft bylaw, but to come back with potential amendments to the existing bylaw or an introduction of a new bylaw.

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Squire also further explained the intent of the original motion, saying it “was not directive of staff to do all three of those things.”

“These things are going to come back for a vote. These are just directing staff and we’re getting tied up here on what we’re sort of asking staff to do. And also, remember, it says in the wording, ‘but not limited to.’ Staff might come back with something different. And I think what we’re arguing about is what we’re asking staff to do,” said Squire.

The motion, with all three parts, passed unanimously at the council level.

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–With files from Global News’ Sawyer Bogdan

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