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Debate to ban graphic anti-abortion signs in London might be delayed until summer

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A political push at city hall to forbid the display of graphic anti-abortion signs in public spaces might be headed back to the drawing board.

On Tuesday, the Community and Protective Services (CAPS) Committee went behind closed doors for over an hour to receive legal advice about a draft amendment to the Streets By-law.

When they emerged from the confidential discussion, Coun. Hadleigh McAlister put forward a motion to refer the report back to staff for more work and return with a revised draft by-law by the end of June.

“I understand there are a lot of concerns regarding Charter challenges, and that’s why I believe staff need more time,” explained McAlister.

In a letter to the committee the Campaign Life Coalition wrote, “The proposed ban sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the broader principles of free speech and expression.”

“We have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a reason, and it’s of high importance, I believe, to Londoners,” Coun. Susan Stevenson told the committee.

The proposed update to city hall's Streets By-law would have forbid the public display of “an image or photograph showing, or purporting to show, a fetus or any part of a fetus.”

It would apply to signs and posters, “publicly visible anywhere on a city street including the sidewalks and other public property.”

Updating the by-law was intended to protect Londoners from the emotional harm of being unexpectedly exposed to posters showing aborted fetuses during roadside protests by anti-abortion groups.

Coun. Sam Trosow was disappointed by the prospect of a delay, “People are suffering because of this and they need relief as soon as possible.”

Coun. Jerry Pribil said he would not support changing the by-law because protests about conflicts in other countries have also included disturbing imagery.

“I consider this as discrimination of one particular advocacy group, and I don’t think it is right,” Pribil explained.

However, a majority of the committee recommended referring the draft by-law back to staff for revisions.

“It requires more time to bring back a stronger set of by-laws that could stand up to Charter challenges,” McAlister conceded after the meeting.

“It’s not as quickly as I would like, so be it,” added Trosow. “We’ll get this right, and I look forward to coming back and having this by-law supported.”

A review of other Ontario cities show no similar by-laws in place, and a graphic sign by-law in Calgary only applies around schools.

In May 2022, London led the way with restrictions on the door-to-door delivery of graphic flyers.

If council supports the referral on March 5, a public participation meeting about the proposed by-law changes will be rescheduled from March until likely mid-summer.

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