Bylaw amendment bans graphic anti-abortion posters, other advocacy signs near Calgary schools

A new bylaw amendment will prevent large advocacy signs from being displayed on public property near schools, after young students were exposed to graphic anti-abortion signs last year. 

The bylaw prevents anyone from displaying or carrying a sign bigger than 3.5 by 5 inches that publicly expresses an opinion on an issue or cause within 150 metres of a school on a school day. Those who break the bylaw could be fined upward of $500. 

Council voted 12-3 in favour of the amendment on Monday evening, with councillors Jeromy Farkas, Joe Magliocca and Peter Demong opposed. 

“Advocacy messaging creates a captive audience of often young, psychologically unprepared viewers who become unwilling viewers of the messaging because they cannot avoid being exposed to it,” read a report from city administration on the amendment.

The city said it engaged with Calgary school boards, students and advocacy groups, as well as Calgary police and legal experts in drafting the bylaw.

While the city’s report does not specify which complaints prompted the amendment, it does say that a 2019 demonstration held outside of school caused a number of concerned parents to contact city council. 

2019 incident

In 2019, anti-abortion group Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform held a protest outside Queen Elizabeth High School in Calgary with graphic placards on display. Neighbouring elementary students witnessed that protest. 

City administration said it learned through stakeholder engagement the issue was an ongoing problem at multiple high schools.

City administration said 18 interviewees with local school boards spoke to specific instances of harmful protests or displays held directly outside of schools once or twice a year.

They said the displays caused problems from sparking arguments between students and protesters, having students filmed by protesters, or anxiety or depression experienced by students or staff as a result of the demonstrations. 

Cameron Cote, with Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, wrote in a public submission against the bylaw amendment that the notion his group is “generating a captive audience of vulnerable and unprepared children could not be further from the truth.”

He said he tells Calgary police each month where the group’s displays will be set up, so schools can be notified in advance, and that his group usually situates itself 25 to 50 metres outside a single entrance at a school, so students could use other exits to avoid their displays. 

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