New bylaw puts notorious London street preachers in city hall's crosshairs
New bylaw would fine anyone using 'abusive and insulting' language in public $750, upon conviction
London city councillors passed a new bylaw Tuesday aimed at curbing "abusive or insulting" language in a six to nine vote at city hall amid a growing public backlash over two notorious street preachers.
Very much the target is on the street preachers- Jared Zaifman
Steven Ravbar and Matthew Carapella have been preaching their controversial sermons on the streets of London for years, castigating women for their choice of clothing or, for pursuing a career. Often, their preaching is taken personally and has even sparked physical confrontations.
The pair were also arrested by American authorities in Louisiana in February for failing to leave private property after confrontations at at least three local churches.
Now, in a six to nine vote, London city councillors have passed a new rule that would allow bylaw enforcement to issue a fine of $750 upon conviction for anyone using "abusive or insulting" language that threatens people's enjoyment of public spaces.
Bylaw sparks debate over free speech
Before councillors voted for the bylaw Tuesday, it sparked a debate among local politicians about the limitation of free speech and city hall's ability to enforce community values.
"Very much the target is on the street preachers," said councillor Jared Zaifman Wednesday. "We shouldn't be making legislation necessarily based off two people"
"I frankly just find the views of the street preachers abhorrent and they don't fit in modern times," he said Wednesday. "Maybe this is an impetus for making a change."
Zaifman said his biggest concern is with the interpretation of "abusive and insulting" language.
"That becomes a very subjective thing," he said. "That would be dependent on the individual bylaw officer and the person filing the complaint."
"This is going to be taken to court and will be litigated," he said, noting he wants the bylaw to put the city in the strongest legal position possible.
"I'm still left with concerns that we may be in a weak position."
Councillor welcomes legal challenge
Councillor Phil Squire, who was one of the nine councillors who voted in favour of the bylaw, agrees with Zaifman that the new regulation will likely be tested in court, but he welcomes the challenge as a potential check of the city overstepping its authority.
If you charge them with saying just objectionable things that's not good.- Phil Squire
"Certainly my constituents are supportive of doing something, but I'm a huge valuer of free speech," he said.
"I think it needs to be tested in court, so our municipality and other municipalities will know and the citizens will know, here's what we can do and here's what we can't do," he said, noting that sometimes there's a fine line between things people don't want to hear and criminal harassment.
"The easiest way to look at it is these guys are standing on a street corner and they're saying women are this and women are that... You can't charge someone for that."
"On the other hand, if a woman is walking up the street past them and they direct it directly at her... That's a different kettle of fish," he said.
"It's that line when free speech stops being free speech and becomes you're interfering with someone else's enjoying with the community," he said. "If you charge them with saying just objectionable things that's not good."
No easy answers
London Deputy Mayor Paul Hubert, who was also one of the six councillors who voted against the bylaw Tuesday, sees a legal challenge as inevitable.
"It's going to be extremely difficult to enforce," he said. "It's going to be tested in court."
Hubert said he does believe something needs to be done about the street preachers' abusive speech.
"I think one of the things we're trying to create here is a society where there's an open dialogue, this is a civil society, but it's done respectfully. I think we would be unanimous to say that the speech by these two individuals is not respectful and it's divisive and it's hurtful and it's inappropriate. However, finding a legal remedy to deal with that is very difficult."