Freedom of speech weighed against ‘weaponized’ words – The London Free Press

It was freedom of speech stacked up against “weaponized” words.

City council weighed the need to uphold a “sacred” right to free speech with the responsibility to protect London residents from verbal abuse in an intense debate Tuesday night.

A new bylaw to regulate amplified sound – such as preaching on the street corner using a megaphone – passed unanimously, but a change that would consider “abusive or insulting language” a public nuisance when it prevents Londoners from enjoying public spaces like parks was a tougher sell.

Coun. Jared Zaifman led the charge against the public nuisance bylaw amendments, arguing that while London’s street preachers espouse “loathsome views,” they should have the right to share them as long as they don’t cross a criminal threshold.

He slammed his colleagues for failing to adequately question the bylaw and the situations where it would be applied, warning council the new rules could land city hall in legal battles.

“This is a very significant step that our council would take,” he said. “We are essentially looking to put this bylaw on the books based on the actions of the very few.”

London’s street preachers are a fixture in the downtown core, and often berate women for wearing pants or working outside the home.

Zaifman, along with councillors Michael van Holst, Josh Morgan, Paul Hubert, Anna Hopkins and Virginia Ridley, opposed the motion, but all others were in favour, and the bylaw changes passed 9-6.

Coun. Maureen Cassidy suggested the public nuisance bylaw was a reasonable direction for council to adopt, saying Londoners should expect to be able to “enjoy our public spaces without being verbally attacked.”

Council’s approval of the contentious rule means city hall bylaw officers have the right to police “abusive or insulting language” that keeps people from enjoying public spaces, including issuing a $750 ticket to offenders for the kind of behaviour that previously fell into a grey zone.

Coun. Phil Squire, a lawyer, supported the bylaw. He said freedom of speech doesn’t extend to speech used as a “weapon.” He said the potential for a lawsuit wouldn’t deter him.

“I expect there will be litigation on this. I expect there will be a test case, as there should be,” he said, saying those challenges before the courts could lend clarity to a municipality’s role and rights to regulate this sort of behaviour.

Top city lawyer Barry Card, who was asked to investigate the potential for Charter challenges when the bylaw was last discussed, said he believed the public nuisance rules proposed by staff “respect the balance that council is seeking.”