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Taber, Alberta ‘hurt and saddened’ by online backlash to bylaw on swearing, public assembly

Taber’s police commission chairman says residents are hurt and saddened by harsh online reaction to news of the town’s restrictive new “Community Standards Bylaw,” which he believes was drafted with the best of intentions, if not expert legal advice.

“It hurts my heart,” Ken Holst said Tuesday. “I’m hurt today to read some of the extreme comments that have circulated on social media.”

Online chatter – much of it ridiculing the town – exploded after Metro reported that Taber had adopted a bylaw that prohibits swearing in public, slaps a curfew on children and teenagers, and restricts public gatherings of three or more people.

Holst said the bylaw was drafted by town staff and the Taber Police Service and was reviewed by the police commission before being sent on to town council, where it was approved by a 6-1 vote.

“We really feel this is the best for Taber and makes it a better place, as opposed to ‘the worst place on Earth,’ as the way some people are portraying this,” he said.

Holst said no lawyers were involved in the police commission’s review and they didn’t discuss whether aspects of the bylaw would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He noted other municipalities in Alberta have similar rules, including the City of Lacombe, which in September 2013 adopted a “Community Standards Bylaw” of its own that contains almost identical wording and restrictions. (See the full text of that bylaw at the end of this article.)

But Michael Dietrich, a Lethbridge-based lawyer with 45 years of experience including at the Supreme Court level, said the restrictions on swearing and assembly, in particular, would never stand up to a legal challenge.

“It clearly, clearly infringes the Charter,” Dietrich said.

It’s also unusual for a police service to be involved in drafting legislation, Dietrich added, and for no legal experts to be involved.

“When you draft legislation, you have to consider a lot of implications,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

Taber Mayor Henk De Vlieger was taken aback by the backlash to the bylaw, saying “it was not our intention to stir up a media storm.”

“Many other Alberta municipalities have very similar bylaws and we expect the same common sense with enforcement to prevail here,” the mayor said in a release.

But Lisa Lambert, an instructor in political science with the University of Calgary who lives in Coaldale, about 35 kilometres west of Taber, described the existence of such laws as embarrassing to small towns everywhere.

“Certainly, it needs a Charter challenge but, really, it needs to be shamed,” she said. “The people who brought this in need to say, ‘I’m so sorry. We made a mistake. We were just having a bad day … and we’re going to just retract this law, because it’s ridiculous.’”

Holst said the goal of the bylaw was “to give another layer of tools to our police service.”

He said it came largely in response to concerns raised by citizens in a survey commissioned by the Taber Police Service.

“Graffiti was the main concern and the second concern was large gatherings of youth and other people on town property, sometimes causing issues,” he said.

While some of those issues could be addressed through existing provincial and federal laws, Holst said Taber wanted to empower its law enforcement when an offence is “imminent to occur,” which he described as “preventative policing.”

“Exactly how that sits with the Charter, to be 100 per cent honest with you, that discussion did not come up with the commission,” Holst said.

He added that the “intent” of the bylaw is not to prosecute trivial matters or some of the more outlandish scenarios hypothesized by critics on social media, such as charging firefighters for assembling in too large of a group when responding to a blaze.

“We have full confidence in the discretion of our officers,” he said.

Full text of the similar "Community Standards Bylaw" in Lacombe, Alta.