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Assault on democracy

It was interesting to watch city council give approval in principle to a public nuisance bylaw without a word of debate Monday. Council spent a lot of time debating things like what to do about signs on a south end condo development site that violate the city’s sign bylaw. But when it came to an issue with profound implications for the city, namely the public nuisance bylaw, discussion was left for another day.
So far, Mayor Karen Farbridge and five of the 12 ward councillors – Bob Bell, Todd Dennis, Ian Findlay, June Hofland and Karl Wettstein – have provided some comments to the Tribune on the bylaw and the sort of feedback they’ve been getting on it. Lots of feedback in Findlay’s case, not so much for other councillors. The other seven councillors didn’t respond to a Trib email survey last week, and they maintained their silence at Monday’s council meeting.
Bell provided perhaps the best quote to the Trib. “We have freedom of movement (protest marches), freedom of assembly (listening) and freedom of speech. What is at issue here is the freedom to occupy” public property, he said in an email reported in a story in Tuesday’s edition.
Occupying public property has happened often in many times and places – during, for example, the sit-ins popular in the 1960s. It happened again a year ago during the Occupy movement, which started with protests on Wall Street dealing at least partly with serious economic issues and spread from there, including to Guelph.
The draft public nuisance bylaw, which promises fines of up to $10,000 for a first offence, would forbid “protests and rallies that extend beyond 24 consecutive hours” unless a permit is obtained from city hall. It would also make it an offence to camp or construct temporary structures on city property, unless the city has granted a permit.
This is like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly, as they say. The inconvenience caused by some protests doesn’t justify this sort of assault on people’s democratic right to protest against what they see as injustices.
The city might need the bylaw’s additional power to control nuisance parties in student housing, especially after losing a challenge this year to its right to protect neighbourhoods from ill effects of shared rental housing through zoning changes. However, it should ditch or dramatically change the parts of the draft nuisance bylaw that would curb protests in the often feisty City of Guelph.

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