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Signs that display abortion or other messaging near Calgary schools will now have restrictions

Under the amendment to the Temporary Signs on Highways bylaw, the city is proposing to limit signs with advocacy messaging to just 5 inches by 3.5 inches within 150 metres of any Calgary school. 

City council approves proposal to set up buffer zones around schools for certain signs

A proposed bylaw change would ban large graphic displays, like anti-abortion ads, within 150 metres of all schools in Calgary. (The Canadian Press)

A council committee has approved a proposal to set up buffer zones around schools for some types of signs.

The idea was brought forward by Coun. Druh Farrell who said last year that graphic displays by an anti-abortion group have traumatized students who see such images.

Under the amendment to the Temporary Signs on Highways bylaw, the city is proposing to limit signs with advocacy messaging to just 5 inches by 3.5 inches within 150 metres of any Calgary school. 

The restriction would apply from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on days when students would normally be present.

Violators could face a ticket which comes with a fine up to $1,000.

The city's law department told council's community and protective services committee on Wednesday that it believes the restriction is a justifiable one under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The bylaw would not apply on school grounds which are controlled by school authorities nor would it be valid on private property like a homeowners' yard across the street from a school.

The above screenshot shows what a 150 metre zone around Queen Elizabeth High School would look like. (City of Calgary)

School authorities on side

The city consulted with area school boards on the bylaw change and there is no opposition to the proposal.

The chair of the committee, Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, said the proposed bylaw is about protecting children.

"You have a captive audience that has no ability to decide whether they want to be subjected to certain messaging or not and that certain messaging can be harmful," said Carra.

An official with an anti-abortion group that has staged demonstrations outside Calgary schools in the past said the city is not properly balancing people's rights.

Cameron Cote is the western outreach director with the group Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR). He said the organization aims to engage with high school students about abortion.

He said his group focuses on only one location at a school so students who don't want to hear or see their messaging can easily avoid it. 

"A 150 metre safe zone around the entire school property — not simply a main exit, not simply all of the exits but the entire property — will effectively completely nullify any opportunity our team has to engage students in these conversations," Cote told the committee.

He said restricting signs to just 3.5 by 5 inches means their material would need to be smaller than a pamphlet.

Some questions about bylaw

Coun. Jeromy Farkas asked questions of administration on how broadly the bylaw could be applied.

During that conversation, law department officials said that the restrictions would not apply to vehicles displaying pictures of an aborted fetus.

That led to Farkas questioning the point of the proposed bylaw.

He also points out that restricting signs with advocacy messages near schools means that students themselves won't be able to take part in demonstrations on any topic.

"The students aren't going to be able to protest climate change. They aren't going to be able to protest, say, racism in the community. They're not going to be able to protest conditions in the schools," said Farkas.

"It's really 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 wants administration to do more work on the wording of the bylaw amendment.

However, the committee rejected that idea and ultimately voted 5-1 in support of the bylaw.

Carra said that the bylaw would only apply to signs larger than a certain size and that bylaw officers aim to educate violators of any rules before tickets are actually issued.

City council will vote on the bylaw later this month.

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