A recent report from the Vancouver Police Department says two preachers accused of blaring offensive, anti-gay messages with the help of a microphone and amplifier in the West End last summer did not violate hate speech laws.
According to the report, published earlier this year, Vancouver police investigated 10 of the 13 calls it received between June and October 2020 related to street preachers Dorre Love and David Lynn, including an assault in August against a man whose leg was broken as he tried to take the preacher's mic away.
The report says investigators from VPD's Hate Crimes Unit, Major Crimes Section, and the VPD Operations Legal Advisor concluded that "none of the alleged actions by the street preachers constituted a violation of Criminal Code laws concerning hate speech or promoting hate."
The report says officers did curtail the street preachers' activities on seven of the 10 complaints they attended, including one arrest for breaching the peace, and another for aggravated assault.
Criticism for police inaction
Ron Kidd is a West End resident who filed one of two complaints against the police department for failing to act against the preachers in the neighbourhood, which is widely considered a safe enclave for the LGBTQ community.
"I think that generally the police were complacent about Dorre Love," Kidd said.
Kidd is one of many people who have criticized Vancouver police officers for not arresting the preachers for violating hate speech laws, or at least using other methods like detaining them for disturbing the peace.
Dan Snyder, a lawyer and West End resident who led a counter-protest group called the Disco Task Force in response to the preachers, agrees from a legal perspective that the incidents didn't meet Canada's high bar for hate speech.
'There are limits'
But Snyder is one of many who wanted to see police apply noise bylaws to lessen the amplification of the preachers' messages, which many residents complained was so loud it reverberated for several blocks and into people's homes.
"We already recognize that there are limits," Snyder said.
"You can't take a loudspeaker in front of my home at four in the morning and say your political message or your religious message."
The police report says investigators concluded that enforcing lesser offences or bylaws, like noise bylaws, had to be balanced against the department's obligation to protect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and apply it equally to all situations.
Hundreds of protests each year
The report says police monitor hundreds of protests, demonstrations and disturbances every year, and for each of them officers have to balance excessive noise with the protection of individuals' rights.
"Both the VPD Operations Legal Advisor and the VPD Public Order Unit cautioned VPD personnel against attempting to enforce bylaws in situations involving demonstrations, freedom of speech, and or freedom of religious expression," the report says, adding that the city's noise bylaws do not allow power of arrest.
Last month, city staff put forward a report to council to upgrade Vancouver's noise bylaws.
The proposed changes would make unauthorized use of a sound amplification device on a street a ticketable offence with a fine of $250 and the potential confiscation of the devices.
Canadian laws set high bar for hate speech
Snyder says he supports the change, but Meaghan McDermott, interim policy director with the B.C Civil Liberties Association, says she and her organization don't.
"Just because you have a noise bylaw that might be tricky to enforce doesn't then mean that you should develop this very blunt instrument that's way too vague and which would capture way more people," McDermott said.
McDermott agrees that Canada's laws set a high bar for what constitutes hate speech — a bar she says also serves to protect marginalized people and minority groups in a democratic society.