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Alberta's Municipal Anti-Bullying Laws are Deeply Flawed

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One of the easiest ways for a municipal politician to keep his constituents happy is to give them what they want. Sometimes this means enacting popular yet dubious bylaws.

Perhaps this is the impetus behind the Town of Airdrie's push to amend its Public Behaviour Bylaw to prohibit bullying. After all, nearly everyone will rally behind politicians who enact laws to protect children from harm, regardless of those laws' faults.

And Airdrie is not alone. Many other municipal governments in Alberta have already enacted similar bylaws. For instance, Consort, Grand Prairie, Hanna, and Rocky Mountain House each already prohibit bullying. Oyen's Town Council has discussed it. There are likely many others.

Each of these bylaws is similar. Bullying will not be tolerated at any place in town to which the public has access. In some municipalities, bullies can be fined up to $1,000 plus costs, and be imprisoned for six months on default of payment. These are significant penalties.

Regardless of their goal, each of these bylaws is flawed. They are redundant and viciously subjective, they make some acts illegal that they shouldn't, and they are outside of the jurisdiction of any Alberta municipality.

Consort's bylaw considers "harassment of others by the real or threatened infliction of physical violence and attacks" and the "extortion or stealing of money and possessions" as bullying. But harassment, extortion, and theft are already illegal. How will enacting yet another law solve the problem when there's an apparent lack of will to enforce current laws?

Grand Prairie's bylaw defines bullying as an "objectionable or inappropriate comment, conduct or display" directed at an individual "which causes or is likely to cause physical or emotional distress". Simply put, this is vague and hopelessly subjective. By relying on words like "objectionable" and "inappropriate" and requiring those enforcing the law to find the line between behaviours that are likely to cause emotional distress and those that are not, this bylaw will inevitably function as a proxy for the personal views of those enforcing it. This could easily make all sorts of otherwise excusable behaviours illegal. For example, a fine could be issued for a single hurtful comment uttered in anger even though "bullying" is generally understood to mean repeated hurtful behaviour.

Rocky Mountain House's bylaw, like the others, applies in all locations that the public has access, including schools, public parks, recreational facilities, and even sports grounds. Don't taunt the umpire at a baseball game in Grand Prairie--even in jest--because if it could be construed as likely to cause emotional distress and you could be fined for single offhanded remark. And while in Hanna, it's best to avoid verbally taunting your opponents if you are playing in the game.

At their core, these bullying bans are unadulterated attempts to restrict freedom of expression and are therefore outside of municipal jurisdiction. Alberta's Municipal Government Act lists three municipal purposes, none of which grants municipalities the power to enact laws for the sole purpose of restricting expression. Further, the Province of Alberta cannot delegate to municipalities the authority to restrict expression. Under the Constitution Act, 1867, provincial laws may only incidentally restrict expression provided those laws are otherwise within provincial jurisdiction.

But it's not all bad. There is some good in these bylaws. Each demonstrates that bullying is not acceptable and should not be tolerated, and issuing fines may be a quick and efficient means to curb hurtful behaviour. And to be clear, no one endorses or excuses real bullying. It can have devastating and lasting effects, particularly on children.

Regardless, the flaws in these bylaws cannot be ignored. Each needlessly duplicate other laws, some make excusable and non-reoccurring acts illegal, and all overstep municipal and constitutional authority. Think of the problem this way. What these bylaws do--they should not. What they should do--they cannot. Relying on bad laws to prevent bullying is similar to believing that two wrongs somehow make a right.