'This is gender discrimination': Mayor Brown takes aim at London street preachers

London Mayor Matt Brown said street preachers who harangue women for what they're wearing have no place on city streets and said he's spoken to police about keeping an eye on their behaviour.

Story draws huge reaction from women who say they're admonished on the street for their attire

Matthew Carapella is one of two street preachers known for rebuking women for their appearances. (Colin Butler/CBC)

London Mayor Matt Brown said street preachers who harangue women for what they're wearing have no place on city streets and said he's spoken to police about keeping an eye on their behaviour. 

"This is the exact kind of environment that we're working on eliminating in our community," Brown said. "It's gender discrimination. It has no place in our community.

"When I see derogatory language like that, when I see offensive comments like that, I think about my sister my mother my grandmother. No one should be subjected to that kind of language for walking down the street." 

Brown was responding to yesterday's CBC London story about two well-known London men who frequently preach using a loudspeaker at various locations in the city. The pair are often found at the corner of Richmond and Dundas Street downtown. 

The men preach about Christianity, damnation and salvation, but also often confront people, women in particular,  about their appearance and attire. The men also target people they think are gay. 

Dozens of women responded on CBC London's Facebook page, with many saying the men frequently call them "whores" for what they're wearing.

The city's bylaw department has numerous complaints about the men's behaviour, which falls into a grey area between free speech and bylaws that prohibit harassment and acts of public nuisance. 

Brown said city bylaw officers met with London police foot patrol officers to "look at what can be done."

Meanwhile, the two men were back yesterday at the corner of Richmond and Dundas. 

CBC went there to gather reactions from passersby. Many women said the men often step over a line between preaching and aggressive confrontation. 

Is this free speech or harassment?

6 years ago
Duration 1:29
Is this free speech or harassment?

"They call women whores. They shout it at women walking past," said a woman who works near the busy intersection. 

"They're extremely offensive and when you speak to them to ask them to stop speaking like that, they yell even more forcefully at you."

Rhonda Bates, who works downtown, told CBC she's had about 20 interactions with the men, who often stop preaching as she passes to admonish her about her short hair and shorts. 

"I don't think it's OK at all," she said. "When you're stopping people and targeting people ... I have a problem with that."

A university law professor whose work is focussed on freedom of expression and religion says it's not clear whether the men's current behaviour runs afoul of any law. 

"There are a lot of different laws that come close to applying, but perhaps don't," professor Richard Moon told CBC News. 

He outlined the following laws that may apply to their behaviour: 

Criminal harassment: For a conviction, the person targeted has to have a legitimate fear for their safety. "There has to be a physical threat that's part of it," Moon said. The harassing behaviour also has to be reapeated over time and persistent. 

Ontario Safe Streets Act: This is focussed on people asking for money through begging and panhandling. There are no reports of London's street preachers asking for money.

Public nuisance: This can come through a civil action but Moon says: "It's seldom used and it's not clear when it would be applicable." 

Ontario Human Rights Code: Prohibits sexual harassment, but only in regards to accommodation, employment and provision of services.

Hate Speech laws (Criminal Code): For conviction, this requires the willful promotion of hatred against a specific group. This could apply here but Moon said a conviction would be tricky. "To count as hate speech the speech has to be really extreme," said Moon. "It can't just be comments like 'You're not dressed inappropriately." Calling women "whores" might be getting "into the zone where the speech is qualified as hate speech," he said. Convictions are rare. 

Councillors respond

In addition to the mayor, CBC asked each member of council for their thoughts on the street preaching. Here's what those who responded said: 

Coun. Virginia Ridley: Harassment against anyone by anyone, is not acceptable in our community.  I know that our staff resources are looking into this, but I also encourage anyone who has been harassed to contact the London Police to file a complaint. 

Coun. Phil Squire: There are two issues here. The first is that property owners have the authority to bar people from their property and should do so if they are acting improperly. The second issue is whether these people are violating laws prohibiting hate speech or noise disturbances  That decision is not political and is made by independent law enforcement officials and ultimately the courts.

Coun. Mo Salih: Sadly this is the kind of vile minsogynst hate women too often experience. In this instance they happen to have an amplified speaker and signs. I will continue to speak out against hate and promote love and inclusion. No man has the right to tell fellow Londoners how to dress or behave. Simply put it's ludicrous. I've conversed in the past with them and have made it very clear to them that they're wrong.

Coun. Anna Hopkins: This is not acceptable. I support our police and bylaw officers. They're doing a good job dealing with these difficult questions. It's a conversation about trying to understand why people are doing what they're doing. 

Coun. Paul Hubert: As a Christian I have told both of these men that they are twisting the word of God.  Their content and their method is wrong. I am offended by their lack of grace and  judgemental words. I do think they spewing hatred and harassing women and those they disagree with them. The Bible states, " Do not judge lest you be judged" and to give your answer to those ask "with gentleness and respect." They violate both these principles.

Coun. Tanya Park: I am very glad that this story came out.  Last week I was confronted by one of these individuals who told me that my place was in the home, and that because I chose to work outside of the home, both of my children are suffering from abuse and neglect. Apparently I should be at home all day while my children are at school. It is my personal belief that no individual should be subject to such ignorant accusations.


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.


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